I was mad at God.
It was the 30th of November, a date by which I’ve traditionally completed all of my Christmas shopping, planned my holiday meals, decked half the halls and basically thrown myself heart and soul into the preparations for the season I love best. It’s not that I’m so organized: it’s just that where Christmas is concerned I can scarcely contain my joy. The excitement starts percolating somewhere around about Halloween, and it’s all I can do to hold myself back until after Thanksgiving from draping tinsel over the mirrors and crowning every picture in the house with a branch of holly. I love Christmas so much that I cry when we put the tree up and I cry when we take the tree down—and that never a day before Epiphany. I get so tender over the season, in fact, that the very angle of the light on a late December afternoon is enough to bring tears to my eyes.
But that year I just wasn’t up to it. I was worn out with sorrow, with protracted waiting and exhausted hopes, crushed under a disappointment that felt like a physical blow. Not exactly a recipe for a happy Christmas. And it was all God’s fault.
I told Him so, standing at my window, looking out over a diamond-shot dawn that tangled itself among the velvety arms of my favorite cedar tree and suffused the rising mists with a pale golden light. Christmas, with all its gilted joys and tender associations, would only make things worse.
“I can hardly bear the thought that my Christmas rose has such a thorn.”
I whispered it to the windowpane, and then I immediately thought how silly that was, for the manger itself leads to the Cross and it was a crown of thorns that drew drops of blood as red as holly berries. I knew all that, had sung about it for years, had written little pieces acknowledging the sorrow brooding over that stable in Bethlehem. I had even speculated about the angels’ perspective on the matter, posing that they “may well have bent low in wonder, but could it be that their eyes were dimmed with tears?”
I knew that sorrow was a part of joy, as inextricable as the Cross is from the Resurrection, and that any earthly hurt can make us keen to that loving heartbreak of God. The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness.
It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one. What better depiction of the wasting dearth of disappointed hopes than a weary land hopeless for rain? For a long time I shied away from that word. I held it at arm’s length and buoyed up my spirits with a sanguine hope for ‘next year’. But on that late November morning, options dwindled and hopes all but extinguished, I stared into its lifeless expanse and realized with a horror that seemed to drain all the life out of me that this was the wilderness into which Jesus was asking me to follow Him. It was the last place on earth I wanted to go. I wanted the desert of waiting to give way to a desire fulfilled. I wanted Him to be glorified, yes, but I wanted Him to do it by giving me what I longed for.
The fact was, He had let me down. Early in the newborn days of the previous January He had whispered a word to me, a potent assurance that seared itself on my mind in an unmistakable way. He had comforted my storm-tossed heart with a passage from Isaiah that seemed to echo down through the centuries with a shout of triumphant hope and explode right into the very midst of the quiet room in which I sat reading with burning eyes.
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them;
ran my trusty old King James,
and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.
The words were a cooling shower, steaming and hissing on the dry ground of my desert place of longing, and I sensed the silent movement of God’s voice like a breeze among the brittle grasses:
It’s alright to be sad about that. Now—let Me make something beautiful.
“Way to go, God,” I wanted to say. “You’re really going to be glorified this time.” And what better way to show Himself strong than to make possible that which had proved impossible? To utter a resounding “Yes!” where circumstances had said such an inexorable, “No.” I could hardly wait to see what He was going to do.
And here I was almost a year later, disillusioned and disenchanted, in one of the darkest places I have ever known in my whole life. Nothing had changed—nothing but a heartbreaking flare of medical hope that had ended in ashes and a desire that had grown too heavy to bear. I felt bereft; bereaved and utterly forgotten, with no one to blame but the Author of the universe.
But there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years when it comes to playing the blame game with God: He can take it. “Reviling is also a kind of praise,” says the poet; “pour out your grievances,” says the psalmist. I have to believe that God prefers even insolence to apathy, feigned or otherwise—or worse yet, a pious stoicism. Complaint, at least, is personal; murmuring is abstract, which is why I think God must hate it so: it destroys intimacy. Astonishingly, when I’ve been most angry and honest with Him, His benevolence ends up appearing most poignantly to me. And in the first tender days of that particular Advent season, in the gathering glory of this great Giving and Coming, a bright-winged shadow seemed to gather and fall over me and a breath of wind stirred through the barrens of my wilderness.
There is beauty in this place, He began to tell me again and again, in precious and particular ways, and I clung to that word like a drowning swimmer. If there was beauty here, I had to see it, for without its promise in my life I knew I would perish inwardly, even if it took a lifetime to do it. If there was no beauty here, there was no beauty anywhere—the thought chilled me to the marrow of my soul. But God’s mercy is new every morning, and visits us in a thousand unforeseen ways. The words of a favorite carol bore fresh grace to me the first time I heard it that year:
And so through every time of life, to him who acts with reason,
The beauty of all things doth appear.
All things! Even this wasting patch of earth? Even this bewilderment of pain and desire? Even the hard-crusted face of suffering and surrender? Yes, yes and yes! came the answer on all sides, as if the very rocks and stones of my desert cried out in praise of God’s harmony of things. Almost against my will, I went back and looked at that passage in Isaiah again—and I saw something I had never seen before. Those verses speak not of exchange, but of transformation. The desert in this case is not merely traversed for a season and then gratefully left behind—it is remade. Renamed; plowed and sown and domesticated. This from the hand of the God who “calls things that are not as though they were” and who makes new things out of nothingness.
The wilderness shall blossom as the rose.
“Allright, Lord,” I said. “Have at it.”
And He did. On the first Sunday in that December we attended the Advent Procession at the cathedral downtown. The service is an ancient one, steeped in monastic tradition, wherein the choir travels around the church, singing at all the points of the compass, symbolizing the passage from darkness into light that our Lord’s Advent fulfills. I am such a visual person that it is very meaningful to me, with all the anticipation building to the final glorious Latin hymn sung on the steps leading up to the altar. The most enlightening moment, however, was in the middle of the service, in the midst of a song I had never heard before. From the back of the cathedral came the exultant springing of music and words, buoyant as birdflight:
People, look east! The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
An overwhelming longing seized me, deeper and more wordless than even my longing for a child, and I sat there in the pew with tears standing in my eyes and my heart nearly pounding out of my chest. A year ago I had imagined myself welcoming the baby we had so long prayed for by this time, but in that moment of blinding, choking joy, there in the holy hush of a cathedral with angels’ voices filling the air, the Lord sang His own longing over me:
Welcome Me! Prepare for Me! Incarnate your love in practical ways—love your loved ones for My sake! Open wide your heart and your home and receive Me more joyfully than ever before!
It was both a gift and a charge; a glad challenge my tired heart suddenly—miraculously—roused to meet. I felt as though strong wings were lifting me from beneath; as though a cup of joy had been held to my lips and a gentle voice commanded me to drink my fill. As though the wilderness itself was breaking into song all around me.
Furrows, be glad! Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Rose, is on the way.
That moment threw a quiet mantle of wonder over the rest of the season, tingeing every act with a significance I had never known. A few days before Christmas I was up on a ladder wiring greenery onto a chandelier in anticipation of the loved ones that were soon coming, humming Lo, How a Rose under my breath (anything that had anything to do with roses seemed inherent with meaning that year), when suddenly I stepped down, clippers in hand, under the thrall of a singularly beautiful thought. I went straight to the phone, dialed the wholesale florist I use, and promptly ordered a huge box of blood red roses. When my husband came in with them later I literally danced around the table as he set the box down and lifted off the lid. They were breathtaking: an utter luxuriance of crimson and velvet, couched in a bed of tissue-soft wrappings. But ever so much more than that: they were to me both an image and an offering; an honor to the Author of this glad revel we were keeping in His name. Those roses were my personal statement of faith; my version of perfume, lavished before the coming King.
I nursed them through two harrowingly warmer-than-usual nights and one downright balmy day, but at the end of it I had the joy of spreading out on the porch with my floral supplies and clipping and wiring to my heart’s delight. I made a big wreath of ivy to hang in our bedroom window and trimmed it with snowy white hypericum berries and sprigs of cedar flanking the perfect blooms. I tucked roses among the greenery over pictures and into the big arrangement of holly and pine in my grandmother’s white porcelain compote. I laid them in beds of cedar along the mantle and I worked them into the wreath on the front door. And for the dining room, I fashioned them in rings upon pedestals of oasis and set pineapples—that time-honored symbol of hospitality—down in the center. I can’t remember when I’ve had such fun decorating, or been so pleased with the results. And this in a year when I wasn’t sure I was equal to Christmas at all.
On Christmas Eve our home was bursting at the seams with family and friends-like-family. After the blessing, I read the beloved old greeting penned by Fra Giovanni in 1513 which has become a standard in our home. But never had the words seemed so appropriate:
There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.
I could vouch for that a hundred times over—but as I looked around the circle of beloved faces, I knew that every single one of them could testify to it as well. These were no untouched souls—many of them so much older and wiser than me by far—but faithful men and women of God who had taken His hand and wandered through deserts of their own. And every single one of them had come up with Him rejoicing—regardless of the circumstances. They had seen a light in that dark place that the world could not offer or explain away. And they had never been the same.
The rooms rang with laughter and the snapping of fires and sounds of feasting and good fellowship that day. But loveliest of all to me were the sounds of the children, running through the hall, squealing in their games in the backyard. They lined up for the old-fashioned treat of oranges with soft peppermint stick ‘straws’ (now an institution, even among the teenagers) and they pulled English crackers in the den by the tree. One three year-old lass required my help to pull hers and toppled over backward in a cloud white batiste and astonishment when it gave way—I have to say it might just have been the most beautiful sight of the day in a day full of beauty.
I will never forget that Christmas, or the fundamental shift that happened down inside of me. How it literally changed everything and how the wilderness flowered before my incredulous eyes. My desire had not abated a whit; if anything, it was heartier and haler than ever. But the wild anger had gone, and in its place there bloomed a fresh-flowered hope that all would be well: not because life is perfect or every desire has been accomplished, but because He is. Because He came among us, and He’s still here when Christmas is over. Thou meetest him that rejoiceth, and worketh righteousness: In the years since that has been the standard I have borne in all my preparations for Christmas; a torch flaming in the darkness and a voice in the wilderness. And He does meet us, in our most broken places, year after year, with the marvel of His advent. And He does work wonders—miracles of quiet righteousness—even if they are so hidden in the depths of our hearts only He can see them. But wonders, no less.
Wondrous as a heart breaking with longing and joy at the same time; inexplicable as a barren place blossoming with roses.
Ah—with God, nothing shall be impossible.
originally published on the Art House America blog, November 2012.