They got it right the second time. When they rolled it onto logs and moved our Meetinghouse back in 1851, some thirty-odd years after it had been built, they sited it perfectly. No matter what time of day, the light in this space is gorgeous. Inviting as glows on the Vestry side in the morning and equally enchanting as it takes leave over Norway Pond at the end of the day.
Of course, our forbearers didn’t move the Meetinghouse to enhance our aesthetic pleasure. They were practical men trying to correct their own poor planning. They wanted to bring the buildings along Main Street into alignment and make Hancock look like a proper town. I doubt the prophet Isaiah was their inspiration, but here in the New Hampshire wilderness, they were making straight the highway (Isaiah 40.3).
Still, it soothes the spirit to sit in this spare, minimally adorned space as darkness falls on these shortening days. Today the sun will set at 4:14 pm. Too early, we all complain. This year, I am trying to be pro-active about welcoming the dark. I’m finding it helps to queue up the Mary Chapin Carpenter song Come Darkness, Come Light. It’s a little trick I’m playing on myself. If I’m the one who invokes the darkness and invites it to come, then maybe my sense of hospitality will kick in. This winter I am trying not to recoil from the darkness, but to treat it as a guest to be welcomed.
I get a little help with this on Mondays during Advent. Last year, a group of us began to gather in the Meetinghouse as darkness fell and we doing it again this year. We like pausing together for a few minutes—setting aside our double-sided to-do lists, shutting off our phones, and reflecting on a topic that is somehow related to this season of hopeful expectation. I offer a little talk, play a piece of music, and sometimes do a little show-and-tell. This past Monday, I brought along a poster of Albrecht Altdorfer’s nativity, painted in the 1500’s. It’s an unusual rendering–one that shows Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hunkering down in the ruins of an old house. The canvas gives much more space to the architecture than to the Holy Family. It depicts a building in ruins–all rubble and falling brick, vegetation taking over what’s left of the roof, timbers and beams ripe for salvage.
I brought the Altdorfer nativity because it is referred to several times in a little book I’ve been reading–The Christmas Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Those of us in our 50s and 60s who grew up in mainline Protestant churches were reared on Bonhoeffer-fortified sermons. I don’t think he is cited as frequently anymore and there were several at our gathering this week who hadn’t heard of him or couldn’t quite place the 20th century theologian/pastor/Nazi-resister. I hope that’s not a sign that he is starting to fade out of popular consciousness. His witness is too important to lose. I’m always encouraged when I run into places where his memory seems alive and well—the NH coffee bar that bears his name or a rendition of the morning prayer he wrote while in Tegel prison, featuring the Nashville-based singer-songwriter Molly Parden.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for nearly two years before he was hanged by the Nazis in 1943, just months before the end of World War II. Advent was an especially poignant time for him when he was in prison; but even in his cell, he put up an Advent krantz (wreath), hummed the season’s hymns, and got through that lonely time by imaging how his friends and family were observing Advent back home. In a letter to his parents he wrote:
Although I am not at all clear about whether, or how, letters get to you, I want to write on this afternoon of Advent Sunday: Remember the Altdorfer Christmas scene, in which the Holy Family is depicted with the manger amidst the ruins of a broken down house—how could he, four hundred years ago, against all traditions of his time, show the scene like that? It is really contemporary. We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us…I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all of the Advent decorations—as in earlier years you did with us. We must do all this, even more intensively because we do not know how much longer we have.
Bonhoeffer reminds us that courage is embedded in the smallest of acts—acts like keeping Advent and celebrating Christmas despite whatever may be in ruins in our own lives and times.