Reading from the Gospels, Christmas Eve, Years ABC: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
In his book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau writes that in every pilgrimage, there is a secret room, a place along the path that gives us a different perspective on the deep mystery of our journey. In describing this hidden room, Cousineau draws on a story that poet Donald Hall tells of friends who purchased an old farmhouse. Cousineau writes,
It was a ‘warren of small rooms,’ and once they settled in and began to furnish their new home they realized that the lay of the house made little sense. ‘Peeling off some wallpaper, they found a door that they pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: They found no corpses nor stolen goods.’ For Hall, the mystery of poetry to evoke powerful feelings finds its analogy here, in its ability to be sealed away from explanation, this is the place where ‘the unsayable gathers.’
And so it is on the pilgrim’s path. Everywhere you go, there is a secret room. To discover it, you must knock on walls, as the detective does in mystery houses, and listen for the echo that portends the secret passage. You must pull books off shelves to see if the library shelf swings open to reveal the hidden room.
I’ll say it again: Everywhere has a secret room. You must find your own, in a small chapel, a tiny cafe, a quiet park, the home of a new friend, the pew where the morning light strikes the rose window just so.
As a pilgrim you must find it or you will never understand the hidden reasons why you really left home.
On this Christmas Eve, the lectionary gives us a reading from Luke’s Gospel. Luke tells of shepherds and angels, good news and glad tidings, and a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Luke tells us of the shepherds’ journey to the manger, and of how they tell Mary and Joseph about the news they had received of their child. “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” Luke writes.
But Mary, the Gospel writer tells us, treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2.19)
Over the past nine months, Mary has entertained an archangel, said yes to becoming the mother of the Son of God, made the journey to visit Elizabeth, and lifted up a song of hope that has endured across centuries. She has waited with Elizabeth for months, made the journey back home, and traveled with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem to be included in the registration ordered by Emperor Augustus. She has labored to give birth to her son, enfolded him in strips of cloth, laid him in a manger, and welcomed those who came to marvel at what had come to pass.
Luke tells us that in response to their amazement, Mary treasures these words in her heart. Luke’s description conjures an image of a woman who, amid the tumult of angels and signs and visitors and miracles, holds all these happenings in a place of stillness. Among the memories of nine months of adventures she never could have imagined, Mary embodies a sense of wonder that is quiet and deep and wise.
Mary has found the secret room.
And you, have you found a secret room for yourself in these Advent days? On your journey through these weeks of anticipation and preparation, has there been a space, a moment, a place of wonder or wisdom or sheer respite, that helped you discover the purpose of this pilgrimage?
I think of a recent evening spent at the home of my childhood friend whose mother died early in this Advent journey. A mile down the road from where I grew up, my friend and her family opened their home for a festive evening. When I arrived, having traveled straight from my home a couple hours away, I was met in the foyer by another childhood friend who now lives in California and whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. She, and our friend hosting the gathering, and I had spent most of our childhood in one another’s company, a tightly intertwined trio. As we visited, the house began to fill with others from the community I grew up in, family and friends whose histories are tightly bound with mine. We all knew the loss that had visited this home in this season, and we attuned our ears to the laughter, and stories, and hopes that also came to visit on that night.
That was a secret room for me on this Advent pilgrimage, a space where, in the midst of all that was said, the unsayable gathered as well: the sense of gratitude for shared history, for calm amidst the chaos stirred in this season, for the deep gladness that went beyond holiday cheer and became a balm for sorrowing hearts, for the gift of hospitality that provided sustenance for body and soul, and for those whose lives embody the good news of the Christ who came to us in a dark time, and comes to us still.
On this final day of Advent, on this Christmas Eve, I am treasuring these things in my heart.
Blessings to you as we cross into the celebration to come. May there be a sacred, secret room for you in these hours.
[For another reflection on this passage, visit Where the Foreign Meets the Familiar.]