Advent Everywhere

I had a meeting in New York City last week, and Miska joined me. When we were boarding the train in Penn Station for the trip home, several solo travelers in front of us asked the agent to direct them to the Quiet Car. It’s a nice idea, this “Quiet Car.” One imagines a cabin enveloped in hush calm, a meditative space, perhaps with the soothing scent of Spiced Orange and Huckleberry (it’s the holidays), maybe a few candles, the tranquility only interrupted by the rare announcements of upcoming stops offered from the hushed voice of James Earl Jones. Maybe in the far back compartment you’d find a silent yoga class.

However, I’ve been in the aforementioned “Quiet Car,” and it bears no resemblance to this nirvana solitude one hopes to discover. In my limited experience, half the people want to close their shades and pull their eye mask down and forget the world for a few hours; then half the people don’t give a flying fig about signage indicating quiet – they missed the day in preschool where they learned about the “inside voice” and demonstrate with their boisterous (and very long) cell calls, with their karaoke as the music blares from their headphones, their raucous games with friends to pass the time. Once I watched with growing unease as these two factions, over a heated and tense hour, nearly began WWIII right there in poor Amtrak’s “Quiet Car.”

So Miska and I never even considered that danger-laden zone and instead plopped ourselves right in amongst the rest of our fellow travelers, all of us willing to tamp down our expectations and just enjoy the ride.

And wouldn’t you know a fellow, a sixty-something New Yorker who I’m guessing worked in building maintenance, dialed up his daughter who was picking him up in Philly. He sat 4 feet from me and chatted the entire ride. He told his daughter how he shoveled snow the previous night and then skipped evening TV and went straight to a hot shower and bed, his muscles raging from a day on the job topped off by clearing the driveway and sidewalks at home. He asked how his grandkids were doing, worried as he was about their new school and whether they liked it and whether they had to buy new uniforms and if so if money was a problem. He asked where his daughter’s new school was and if she had to travel any extra distance to get there. He asked again about the grandkids, worried again that they might be unhappy or in need of anything. He asked about his daughter’s back pain and how her massage therapy was going and asked her if the massage therapist “put a towel over her butt” because the whole massage thing seemed like Martian-talk to him. Then (after asking about the grandkids one more time) the conductor announced the Philly stop, and he said, “Well, I guess I need to get off the phone. I’ll see you in probably ten minutes, and if I don’t hang up now, I won’t have anything to talk to you about when I get there.”

I’m certain that either way he’d have plenty of good questions to ask, plenty of love to give. See what we’d have missed if we packed into the Quiet Car? Grace comes to us in all kinds of places, unexpected places, boisterous and cluttered places. It’s a lot like Advent.

Good, Good Human

Given that Christian faith rests on the fact that God thought so much of humanity that he insisted on it for himself, I cannot for the life of me understand why we Christians are often the ones most afraid of our humanity, most skittish about our bodies or our passions, quickest to think we must add some “spiritual” component to make an earth-bound good truly good. It was, after all, the Creator who introduced good to our vocabulary, and the Creator spoke this fine word not first over religious texts, theological ideals or evangelistic proclamations. Rather, God the gardener-artist took a gander at purple finches, expansive blue skies, lush honeydew and Adam and Eve’s naked bodies — and God said, Well, look what I did…Now that’s good. Good. Good. Good.

Jesus, as we know, was a Palestinian carpenter who spent his days honing his craft — the lay of the wood’s grain, how the steel blade would sing as it sliced from the proper angle, the smooth lines that told the tale of a master who knows his work. As Jesus took on his more “serious” ministry, we discover that he loved the wild air and took great joy in cooking breakfast at daybreak. Jesus always wanted friends near and entered a fury for those suffering indignity. Jesus wept when death stole a life, and Jesus cared for his mother with his own dying breath.

A beautiful novel, an exquisite meal, a night of good love, a ballgame or a movie with the kids, a traipse across the country, a day’s work at the shop or the office, the studio or the classroom – these are gloriously human acts, filled with possibility and beauty, overrun with God.

If our religion makes us less human, something’s wrong with our religion.