Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to December!

arkansas, art, Children, Christmas, Civil War, coronavirus, Faith, Food, generosity, grief, Hanukkah, holidays, Israel, ministry, poverty, rabbits, righteousness, Travel

Bunnykins Christmas Plate

December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.

My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.

All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.

Christmas Crepes and Coffee

Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.

If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.

Christmas Lights, Hot Springs, Arkansas

While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.

Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.

Menorah

The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:

1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.

2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.

3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.

4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.

5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.

My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.

December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.

Saint Nicholas the Gift Giver

Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”

I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.

The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city. 

In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”

Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet. 

Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept. 

The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.

Banksy: Manger, Bethlehem’s Walled Off Hotel

Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.

May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.

Joy and Peace,

Cornelia

Audio Blessings and Latkes Recipe Link

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103874/jewish/Blessings-on-the-Menorah.htm

How the Pandemic is Affecting Supply Chains

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/11/24/coronavirus-supply-chains

Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701261h.html

Changing Seasons

adult learning, Altars, art, Creativity, Faith, Israel, nature, Painting, pandemic, Prayer, pumpkins, Spirituality, sukkot, vision

When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.

Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.

Enforced Solitude

One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.

To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.

Building a Community of Encouragement

Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.

Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.

Finding Our Own Voice

We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.

Season of Harvest

Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.

In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.

The image is from the British Library Manuscripts collection.

Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.

Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.

Gail’s Pumpkins

Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.

Mike’s Gourds

Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.

Margaret’s Textured Gourds

Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.

Socially Distant Gourds

I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:

“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)

October Harvest Altar

All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.

Upcoming events:

Friday classes—through October

October 23—Autumn Wreathes

October 30—Day of the Dead Skull Cookies

November 6—Painting

November 13—No Class

TBA—holiday season and school vacation calendar

Pluto’s Unusual Orbit: https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/exploring-the-planets/online/solar-system/pluto/orbit.cfm

THE SEASON OF LIGHT

art, Christmas, dark matter, Faith, Fear, Hanukkah, Healing, holidays, Icons, Imagination, Meditation, Ministry, mystery, nature, New Year, renewal, salvation, Spirituality, Stonehenge

Hand painted Ceramic Christmas Tree

As the days grow short, some of us yearn for the light. This week I put up a few Christmas decorations, including my ceramic Christmas tree with the plastic bulbs from the 1960’s and my door wreath with ornaments from the 1950’s. I have a copper and paper manger scene I set before a small lamp, as well as an extremely gaudy, glitter filled candle nightlight to complete the mood. I keep out all year round my mom’s ceramic Holy Family group, since it’s too good to put away.

I remember living in Denver, Colorado, in the cold, dark days of December. They know how to do winter there. I would hang the big, bulging colored bulbs on the upstairs patio of our Victorian duplex, since these had the brightest light. In Louisiana, I used the tiny white lights to discretely outline the entire shape of my little stucco home. They both put out the same amount of light, but some were loud and others were quiet.

Stonehenge

Winter Solstice
Here at the tail end of the old year, the winter solstice comes on December 21, followed by Hanukkah beginning after sunset on December 22, and Christmas on December 25. All of these events have a focus on light.

The solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. In 2019, the December solstice comes on December 21 at 10:19 p.m. CST.

That’s on December 22 at 04:19 Universal Time (UTC). It’s when the sun on our sky’s dome reaches its farthest southward point for the year. At this solstice, the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest day and longest night of the year.

The World Heritage Site at Stonehenge, England, built about 5,000 years ago, is a site specifically built to mark the winter and summer solstices. For agricultural societies, this was important. It may also have been a religious site, connecting the living with the spiritual powers for healing and also with those who are dead to this world, but remembered by the living. We don’t know if the Stonehenge people believed in an afterlife, but they did bury in the gravesites important articles the person found useful in this world, such as bone needles and mace heads.

Repurposed Jewel Menorah for Hanukkah

Hanukkah
Hanukkah, a celebration to mark the miracle of the unfailing oil in the temple lamps, has taken on greater importance in recent years. It recalls the victory of the Maccabees and their resistance against foreign domination. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G‑d.” The Greek army had defiled the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus and sacrificing a pig upon the altar of God. Those Jews who were fine with this were “sold out” in today’s terms, but not the Maccabees, who were joined by a ragtag group who ran a fifteen year resistance effort against the skilled fighters of the Greek army.

Once the resisters reclaimed the Temple, they rededicated it, set up a new altar, and made a new menorah, for the old one had been taken. They found only enough sacred oil for one day, but the light burned for eight days. The message of Hanukkah is a little bit of light can overcome the darkness of the world, so we should never cower in the face of tyranny, do our part, trust in God, and success is sure to come.

Illuminated Manuscript of Menorah

Perhaps this is why we have an enduring fascination with superheroes, characters who overcome challenges in life, such as Harry Potter and the Star Wars pantheon, as well as everyday people who do extraordinary deeds when dire situations present themselves. Those who don’t shirk from the opportunity to do good for others, even at great cost to their own good, are selfless heroes. What doesn’t make sense to us, may be the most sensible and best choice for the greater good. This is the heart of the servant mentality, which is recognized by the central candle of the Hanukkah menorah, which has eight lights, instead of the seven which was used in the Temple.

Christmas
Christmas is the time to celebrate the coming of the light into the dark world, and the joy that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Every Christmas Eve, we hear the old story ever new in our hearts again.

Nativity of Christ with Angels and Shepherds

When my daughter was about ten years old, she looked over the church bulletin one Christmas Eve and said, “John, John, John, who is this John that has such a big part in tonight’s service?”
I whispered, “That’s the gospel of John, and the Mathew and Luke are also gospels in the Bible.”

“Oh, I missed that,” she smiled.
I chuckled.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ~~ John 1:1-5

Today we know dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe, and all solid matter makes up the other 5%. In the ancient days, people thought God had made them the center of the world, but now science can make us feel small. Yet God still calls us into the dark spaces to shine like lights in the world.

We can look around and see, just as in the time of Christ’s birth, authoritarian leaders oppressing the minority members of their countries, and we see the rich and powerful controlling the economies of the world for their own profit, but not for the health of the planet or its population.

We see some of our leaders in the church unwilling to open their hearts to all of God’s children because the leaders live in fear rather than in the power of God’s love for all persons. We also see people of faith unwilling to take on the claims of a life lived in Christ, and so accept a mere testimony to the offer of the fullest life in Christ. A faith without works is a dead faith, or no faith at all, for there’s no evidence to convince the world we have a living faith. If we have the light of Christ in us, we will make our world a brighter and better place, and shine like stars in the world.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and God is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~~ 2 Corinthians 4:6

No matter how you’re celebrating the return of the light this season, may you find at this year’s end more light than darkness and may you shine more brightly in a world which needs so desperately the light of pure and unconditional love willing to risk its own self for the greater good of others. This is the reason Christ came into the world, to serve the Father’s purpose and redeem the fallen and broken world, for all who believed.

MEDITATION ON THE LIGHT
Proverbs 20:27
“A person’s soul is the Lord’s lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts.”

First century oil lamp

Focus the mind on the multiple images of the lamp, the oil, the wick and the different hues of the flame, in order to understand the profound guidance in the divine service of every individual.

Flames demonstrate that while spiritual endeavors such as contemplative prayer and inner personal transformation are important, nonetheless the actual performance of mitzvot (the 613 commandments) is what is most essential. It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body, acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.

Takeaway: It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body—acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.

Questions for the eight candles of Hanukkah:

  1. For You, G‑d, are my Lamp; and G‑d will illuminate my darkness. The first question is: Why is G‑d’s Name invoked twice, seemingly bisecting the verse into two separate statements?
  2. What part do the lighter and darker colors of the flame play in our spiritual lives?
  3. What is the quality of our own light?
  4. Contemplate the divine radiance which fills all worlds, as well as the radiance which surrounds all worlds. Consider how we have both matter and dark matter/energy in our physical world, as a complement to the divine’s dual filling and surrounding of space. (Psalm 145)
  5. As the lights grow brighter in this season of light, is God’s love growing greater in our hearts?
  6. Is God’s love transforming our lives from the inside out, so God’s love can shine through us?
  7. The Hanukkah lamp has eight lights, plus one for the “servant” light. Is the energy of God’s love moving us to shed the light of God abroad in service of the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely?
  8. Where will we shine in the days to come, to be a light to the world and for the sake of God’s name?

NOTES AND LINKS FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Stonehenge: World Heritage Site:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history-and-stories/history/

Dates for Hanukkah:

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103929/jewish/The-Eight-Days-of-Chanukah.htm

Everything you want to know about Hanukkah:

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/default_cdo/jewish/Hanukkah.htm

NASA discussion on Dark Matter:

https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy

Part of this comes from:
A Chanukah Discourse by Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch
“THE SOUL OF MAN IS THE LAMP OF G-D.”

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/63273/jewish/Flames.htm