When I had a molar removed a couple of years ago, I asked the dental surgeon what the Tooth Fairy would give me for it.
“She leaves stock certificates now,” he said.
I liked that guy.
Since I no longer believed in the Tooth Fairy, I did not leave the molar under my pillow. (I hope that did not require a spoiler alert.)
However, my tongue kept touching the hole left behind for many weeks afterward.
I am not as concerned about the historical accuracy of the story of Christ’s birth as I once was. What I do know is that the story and the traditions that have grown up around it point to a deep truth the way a probing tongue finds the spot where the tooth used to be. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a symbol of that tradition that draws thousands to it on Christmas Eve. The image above is of the Door of Humility in the basilica, the entry to the cave where tradition says Christ was born to Mary among the animals that were stabled there. There is even a spot marking the manger where, according to the story, she laid him after wrapping him tightly in what most of us would call rags.
Apparently most people cannot enter through that door without bending over. For all the candles and symbols that are stuffed into that place, it is still, unmistakably, a cave — a hole in the earth. Whether or not you believe He was born there, this cave points to something important and hard to articulate, but Advent is a time for probing the caves, the holey experiences, in our own lives.
My last two Advents have been a time for running my spiritual tongue around the holes in my life.
Last year was the first December in 45 years that I did not spend planning special services, attending Christmas potlucks, and going to concerts — to say nothing of trying to find something new to say about the Incarnation.
It felt odd, like a missing tooth.
This year, Jacquie left for India on Thanksgiving Day and won’t return until the 20th. On top of that, she is spending almost all of her time there in an ashram, a retreat center begun by the guru whose teachings form the philosophy that undergirds our local yoga center. Visitors are not allowed to use electronic devices.
In other words, after half a century of communicating with each other every day, I have not heard from her since she messaged me that she had just seen the Taj Mahal and was on her way to the ashram. That message came in the day after Advent began.
I hasten to add that I am not spending this season shriveled into a fetal position. I have a dance card full of social connections with friends and neighbors, and a to do list that is astonishingly long. I am also a person who enjoys solitude. But, I will be glad when she returns.
In the meantime, this is an opportunity to explore the hole — not just the one that Jacquie fills in my life, but a deeper one. One we all have.
I used to get in touch with it on that first Sunday in Advent when, attempting to put off singing Christmas carols at least one week, I would always choose “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which I have heard more than one parishioner complain is not very “upbeat”.
Perhaps I was being selfish, but the minor key worked like that tongue exploring a hole in my soul. Singing about Israel, I could feel myself sitting in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Then the music would end, I would pronounce the benediction and place myself next to the door to shake hands with the crowd that would swell through December’s Sundays until we were packed shoulder-to-shoulder on Christmas Eve.
This year, with time and opportunity to explore the hole, here is what I have found.
The hole is dark.
The hole is cold.
The hole is empty and lonely.
Why would anyone want to go there? Why would you want to explore it? Probe it? Feel your way through it over and over again, like a tongue probing a missing tooth?
It is only in the darkness that we can see the faint light of hope.
It is only in the cold that we can feel the warmth of love.
It is only in the emptiness and loneliness that we can sense the companionship of Someone beyond ourselves.
Just as the stars fade in the sky over the big, bright, busy city, so the beauty of holiness is hard to see in the midst of the big, bright, busy “Christmas Season”. But if your Advent contains some dark, empty, silent nights, you may come to Christmas Eve ready to experience a holy night that is calm in the presence of peace and bright with the light of love.
Image by Ian and Wendy Sewell (http://www.ianandwendy.com/Israel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons