As we roll into Advent and Christmas, I have completed the project for Boston University’s School of Theology with a version of the processional cross I made for our church in 2017. Since then I have spent many hours reflecting on its meaning while in worship events at our church. Sometimes the hard maple disk is for me the moon, with intimations of the cycles of human gestation, birth, and then, rebirth. Most of the time it is for me a sun, the source of all life in our system, cauldron of unbelievable power. With it, we live. In it we die faster than the blink of the Big Bang. In all of this the disk speaks to me of the Christ reality of creation and redemption.
Radiating out from the sun are the arms of the cross, the walnut wood echoing the rough timbers on which the life of God was nailed. But instead of nails we have here rays of light crossing through the wooden members, streaming out toward the horizon. The light of the world goes through the wood. Here the light is made from the wood of the holly tree, whose red berries in the early winter punctuate the darkening world like specks of blood, feeding the winged creatures sheltered in its branches.
At the center of the disk is a deep red core made of purpleheart. Sometimes it speaks to me of the traditional bleeding heart of Jesus in Catholic piety. Other times it becomes for me a dark hole, reminding me of the black holes at the heart of galaxies, where all matter is drawn into an infinite singularity and from which, some speculate, erupt new worlds, even new universes.
In this way, this sunburst cross reflects both the ancient sacrificial dynamics of the remembered crucifixion and the cosmological creation and regeneration imagined in contemporary science’s story of the universe. In either case it expresses for me the passage into both death and life, an expression of the overwhelming power, illumination, and faithfulness of God’s love.
I am always troubled by the symbolism of the Christmas season. The myth of the virgin birth is still caught in a false understanding of how human life arises—not from the seed deposited by the man in the woman’s empty womb, but from the mysterious joining of bearers of our genetic code. It is a mistaken conception that haunts us even today in the controversy over the abortion of “pre-born infants” even as we know that what we face is more than simply “reproductive health.” We don’t know what to do with a life and a universe that is constantly evolving from what we know not to what we cannot imagine. The gnostic notions of pre-existing beings who slip “down” into our world from the heavens “above” to walk the earth and then climb back into the starry realm that is our “real home” are simply unbelievable for someone who has even a foggy idea of our current cosmological knowledge. And then there is the ghostly apparatus of patriarchal monarchy hovering over the carols, readings, and banner art seeking to claim once again our heart’s allegiance in a world of struggling republics, constitutions, and civil conversation. Instead I struggle to reclaim from these intractable mythic elements the citizenship of even a nameless peasant woman, the flight from despots and corrupted rulers of temple and forum, the longing of a craftsman for a sustainable and beautiful world. As our commercial world says, it’s a tough sell in a clamoring marketplace.
And so Christmas always brings the way of the cross, not the pyramid of sacrifice that omnipotent fathers demand of their submissive sons, but the way of patient pilgrimage to the mystery that even this little concatenation of genetic code on this flimsy bit of stardust participates in the creative love for whom twelve billion years is but one step in a dance, whose embrace is warmer than a thousand lovers in this world. So maybe this dark time in the northern hemisphere offers an encouragement to look up at some distant star that brings us awe, some cross of sunny rays that illuminates our pinched and weary ways. I hope these days offer all of you a new glimpse, a new facet in the jewel of this life.
I close this reflection with my liturgy for the lighting of the fourth candle in Advent, the peace candle.
Call to Worship
In the midst of deathly silence
We hear a song of gratitude.
Lost in the howling winds
We feel a stranger’s helping hand.
Along the streets of forgotten hopes
We hear the steady footsteps of the messenger of peace.
Broken by the world’s unyielding pain
We drink from the fountain of God’s mercy.
In the darkened corner of a stable’s stall
We come to the table of God’s peace.
[A Hymn is sung]
O Holy Giver of all Peace,
In the new birth of a little babe release us from the bondage of our sinful pasts. In the midst of our self-righteous conflicts, help us hear your still small voice of peace. In the destruction of our fondest hopes reveal your patient, loving purposes. In the words we speak and songs we sing, make manifest the splendor of your beauty. In each prayer we utter, renew us with your peace. Amen. Amen. Amen.
Out of a distant town in a defeated nation came the bearer of God’s peace. Not in armies’ might nor in the pomp of public spectacle, but from a simple couple in distress came the Life that saves the world. From the babe tight swaddled on the straw a light burst forth to lead us on the path to God’s abundant mercy. In the mystery of his own self-giving we receive the miracle of God’s undying love. In memory and in hope we light this candle of Christ’s peace.
Lighting the Candle
Prayer of Dedication
O Holy Source of All Creation,
Ignite our hope lest we be lost among the shadows of despair. Unlock our gratitude that we might sing your testament of love. Lift up our burdened hearts with your earth-saving joy. And lead us in Christ’s footsteps to the garden of your peace. Amen. Amen. Amen.