Tuesday, December 15, 2015


What with my recent move to a new apt., travel last week to KC, social and work obligations ET CETERA, I'm about two weeks behind...Thus I will not be crafting my hand-made rubber stamp and construction paper Christmas cards this year and sending them out with a dear Madonna-and-child stamp!

I did, last weekend, however, manage to unpack my Christmas decorations. In the course of this splendid task I unearthed, nestled beside a stack of old cards (which I keep, year to year), a tangle of lights, and a several small boxes of vintage bulbs the second page of what had clearly been a two-page essay. I recognized it instantly--a piece by my friend  James Stephen Behrens, a former diocesan priest in NJ and for many years now a Cistercian monk at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia.

James Stephen is a photographer, a writer, and a close observer: of deer, cobwebs, shadows, stars, people.

I emailed him right away and asked if I could run his essay. It's entitled "Christmas 2014" but it could just as well be called "Christmas is Forever."

Like Mary, he said yes.

Here it is, with my thanks and my joy.

There is a strip mall not far from the monastery.  I was there a week or so before Christmas.  Most of the stores are vacant and have been that way for a long time. The “For Lease” signs in the windows are faded.  I parked the car and walked around a bit.  I looked in a few windows and the views were all pretty much the same – gatherings of dust, empty coffee cups on the floor, dismantled shelves, scraps of paper.  When I walked back to my car I noticed something strange.  All the tall lampposts were decorated for Christmas.  Each one had a variation of a Christmas theme.  Some had big foam Santa Clauses.  Others had silver bells and red and green ribbons, all covered with glitter that sparkled in the sunlight.The big parking lot was almost empty of cars.  I wondered about the decorations.  I suppose that each year they are put up on the lampposts, even if there are no shoppers, no stores, no Christmas music streaming from loudspeakers.

I suppose that one very important dimension of Christmas thrives on fullness.  I know that there are malls, restaurants, churches, banks and credit card companies that thrive during the Christmas Season.  They promise the best that this Season can bring, with bows and ribbons, discounts galore, deferred payments and Christmas bonuses. But there is another dimension to Christmas that draws near to places that are empty, deserted and in need of the hope that only the meaning of Christmas can bring.  Emptiness gnaws at us, like a hunger that we are incapable of satisfying, of filling, with our own resources.  And yet this expectation rises in the human heart at this time of the year. Maybe a good place to ponder this dimension is an abandoned strip mall, a place off the busy and thriving places of the Christmas map, a place where the only music that can be made is a Christmas carol as it plays on the car radio or goes through one’s mind as the emptiness waits for a fullness that may be a long time in coming.

I am listening to the radio as I am stringing these words along.  Over one-hundred and forty children were killed in an attack on a school by the Taliban.  It happened in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.  It is one of many tragic stories that ride the airwaves along side the carols of good cheer and wondrous gifts to come.  It is hard for me to separate the bad news from the good.  Seen from a place far above us, the earth must look like a beautiful place, a place where city lights twinkle back at the light of the stars and the vast oceans glisten as the tides rise and fall.  The wounds born by its people cannot be seen.  And nothing at all seems to be crippled by the ache of emptiness.  But upon a closer look, the earth and its inhabitants struggle to fill the emptiness that hollows the heart and deadens the mind.

There are lights at this time of the year.  Lights on trees, lights on homes, lights in churches, synagogues, and in gatherings of the faithful all over the earth.  These, too, can be seen from afar.  And Scripture tells us that a Child was found by three Wise Men who followed the moving light of a star across a vast desert, and when it settled above a little town, they knew the Child awaited them. And they worshipped him, and brought him gifts.

It is the Light of that Child that makes everything different, makes of all things not what they seem to be. For this Light that is Life, when brought to bear upon the darkest corners of human life, promises that there will be redemption, that the light of goodness, of God, will overcome whatever darkness we see about us. The Light will fill our emptiness and we will someday learn not to assuage our emptiness with excess, with violence, with the murder of the innocent.

I like to think that the lights and decorations of that little strip mall are okay, even though no one comes to the place. For I like to think that our lives are kind of like that mall. We wander in the midst of a poorly decorated world, a world like a half-baked Christmas awaiting a crowd. But if you pull off the road and into the mall, and think just a bit, and maybe pray, you will better know why God came to us as one of us. He can be most clearly seen in the empty and abandoned places of life, places that we normally avoid when sales are non-existent and the frenzied crowds at the mega-malls. And in the silence of that little empty mall, his message is barely a whisper, but it is clear: Christmas is for all, the rich and the poor, the empty and half-hearted, as free gift, and it is eternal, and no darkness will overcome it. But you have to pull off the highway just a bit, and stay for a while in a place that life seems to have passed by. God is waiting there, as he waits everywhere, amidst the lonely decorations and the row of closed stores – a place that looks to be waiting for something real good to happen, when in fact, it already has, a Big Time arrival, from afar.

--James Stephen Behrens, OCSO


  1. Brilliant take on the Nativity, but also on America. It's when we're in an empty parking lot that we're most In America, that this place suddenly makes sense. It's as if the great chaos of capitalism is really just our Jonah's whale, and our true vocation is the stillness of a contemplation even purer, dryer, and emptier than that of the Egyptian desert or Monte Cassino.

  2. Hope and poignancy of Advent captured in this haunting essay. Thanks for the real 'reason for the season' reminder...

  3. I'm so glad you all responded to the piece as strongly as I did. I agree--part of what the piece captures so beautifully is that hush in the midst of the consumerism and chaos and the false lights that burn a little too brightly. We are so afraid to be alone with our thoughts, our loneliness, our fear of being left behind. And lo and behold, that is just where Christ is born and lives...

  4. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Perfect. Thank you!


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