Over the next few weeks, specifically until Christmas, Pastor Todd will be offering devotional reflections for the Season of Advent. They will be occasional as in stirred by the occasion of his own devotional reading, and Avent sermon he has read or even a notion from his current Advent reading, Star Bright!: A Christmas Story by Andrew M. Greeley.
Reflections as in how his reading stirred some thoughts about our church and/or community in light of the anticipation of Jesus’ first coming. If you find these reflections beneficial for your own devotional life, feel free to share.
Tatiana took out her sketch pad. Jack sat across the table wondering what she was feverishly sketching. After some persuading, Odessa, another name by which Jack knew the mysterious new friend, turned the art work around to reveal her subject. It was him. Jack was startled by its accuracy. Never mind that it did look like himself. He was taken back by the obvious way she captured something internal to him, something inside.
Walking through Relics, an antique mall in Springfield, Missouri, last month we saw plenty of items that caught our attention. For Patty, it was the occasional cookie jar or Pyrex. My Mom noticed quite an eclectic number of items for sale. She once dabbled in antiques. Dad and I were just tagging along. My interest would be the bookstore that was the next stop on our list.
Turning the corner to the next aisle I spotted a small book. The dust cover revealed the author’s name in a font larger than the title and subtitle. It was as if the publisher screamed that you should read anything by Andrew M. Greeley. It had been a long while since I had picked up anything by Father Greeley. Before his death in 2013, Greeley taught sociology at the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago. My mentor had introduced me to Greeley years ago.
Star Bright! A Christmas Story, the title of the little-used book that cost less than $3, drew me in just after recognizing the author. Ever since I read Walter Wangerin’s, Preparing for Jesus: Meditations on the Coming of Christ, Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom, I have kept an eye out for other books on the theme of Christmas. Last year I added Fleming Rutledge’s, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Wangerin offers meditations. Rutledge provides resources and sermons. Greeley tells stories.
Jack met Odessa as she read a Russian paper on a bench in Harvard Square. In typical boy meets girl fashion Greeley introduces the main characters. It would be easy to dismiss this short novel, all of 127 pages, small ones at that. How many times have readers been treated to Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail? Better yet, how many have actually lived that story.
We were in Junior High School. At least that is when Patty caught my attention. She caught everyone’s attention. The thought that a skinny, nerdy, wanna-be jock, could get her attention reminds of that memorable line from Dumb and Dumber. You may remember it. Lloyd is hoping Mary will give him the time of day. When she replies with impossible odds, Lloyd responds with hope, “So you’re saying there’s a chance.” It would take a couple of years to get her attention, but like Jack, I could have easily described Patty, with her long brown hair, big brown eyes and shapely beauty as he seemed unafraid to convey the beauty of the duchess, as he would refer to Odessa. And, like Jack, have the sense that I must be dreaming given the unlikely pairing.
My mother would later tell me she could not imagine I had brought home such a beautiful young girl. It seemed even Jack’s Mom hinted at the same after Jack brought Tatiana to Chicago for Christmas. Initially, I was taken in by nostalgia.
For Christmas Jack bought Tatiana oils for her art supply. She had not bought them herself as they were too expensive. The son of both a surgeon and a lawyer, attending Boston College, could afford what she could not. It would be the wealth of her beauty and the depth of her wonder at the grace of God that would bring the greatest value to the Flanigan Christmas, not their financial resources.
Underlying the whirlwind romance that covers two months is Jack’s sulking. Odessa had captured it in that first sketch sitting across the table from Jack. It was in his eyes, the window into his heart. The source of his sulking came out during a conversation about attending the Christmas Ball at the Club. He had long carried a personal wound. It had shaped his own story. From that point, every disappointment was like gas on a fire. He often doubted the relationship that was obviously making its mark on him as a person. Jack was sulking toward beauty. Needless to say, it would be the beauty of the Story to which Tatiana continually referred – the coming of the Christ. She wove the telling of that story into most conversations as if one of us would offer an anecdote for our favorite college football team. Did I tell you the Oklahoma Sooners are in the College Playoffs?
The reality of Greeley’s intent sneaks up on the reader. Taken in by Jack’s description of Odessa’s beauty does not serve as the feature that lures his family to find her the type of person they insist comes back next Christmas. His friends acknowledge her beauty but they advise him not to hurt Tatiana as it would stir their judgment and wrath. He dare not disappoint his friends and he certainly preferred the mellow mood of his family with Odessa to the typical fighting that was sure to occur. Odessa lived the story of grace so naturally that her references to her Christianity did not lead to the age-old conflicts between the Catholic family and the Orthodox guest.
So adept at telling stories of grace, Odessa was put upon to tell yet another Christmas story. She told the story of Babushka. When she had finished, Jack described the impact of the beauty, truth and goodness of the coming of Christ,
Our bright morning star had worked a few miracles. My contentious and difficult family had been transformed. The metamorphosis would not last long. However, during the interlude of peace and good will some of them might find a window of opportunity, perhaps one with a candle in it, to alter slightly the direction of their lives. Maria might hate a little less. Steph might realize how fortunate she is to have Joe. Maybe Eddie would leave Brigid alone. Possibly I could give up most of my grudges.
That’s how grace works, I guess.
Tatiana received the Light of the world and it forever set her eyes to see God’s grace at work around her. Her visit to the Flanigans became a showing of the love she had encountered by grace. Stanley Hauerwas noted in a sermon found in Minding the Web,
Our love for one another is crucial for our showings to the world.
Often hidden by our own sulking we trust the beauty of the Story of the Coming of Christ provides the occasion for our showings to the world.