A light through the storm

By 1927, Captain Bill Winkepauw was already an experienced pilot.[i]  Though mechanized flight itself was still a relatively new phenomenon, Captain Winkepauw was as adept and accomplished as any man one might see careening through the open sky.  He was learned; he had raw talent; and he was meticulously careful when in the air.  Captain Winkepauw was born and raised in New England, and he also knew the unpredictability and the potential fury of New England coastal weather.  He had a healthy respect for the elements.  Flying with Captain Winkepauw gave others a sense of security, because they had confidence in his command of any situation.

That December morning in 1927 was a frigidly cold one, but the sky was clear and the forecast unforeboding.  Bill Winkepauw had an assignment that would take most of the day.  He had to fly up to Maine and make a delivery.  Though Captain Winkepauw knew it would add hours to his trip, this was an important delivery, and he wanted to take it from the plane to its destination personally.

Curtiss P6-E Hawk #biplane #1920s | Biplane, Vintage airplanes, Aircraft  images

In good time, Captain Winkepauw made it to Maine, delivered the package, and made it back to the airport to ready his plane for the teturn fight home.  He ignored the snowflakes that had begun  to flurry around him as he walked around the airplane.  He pretended not to hear the old man at the tower door yelling to him that something unexpected and ominous was whipping in from the East.  Captain Winkepauw wanted—needed—to make it home that evening, and in his humanness he set aside everything he knew about flying and the weather and took off into the darkening, late afternoon sky.

Captain Winkepauw had not been in the air more than a few minutes when he realized his mistake.  It seemed as if he had hit the air from one direction and hell’s full fury had slammed him plane from the other.  The gray sky turned to black in a heartbeat, and the churning weather outside his windshield confused his bearings and, in his confusion, made him question his instrument panel.  He was no longer even sure if he was over land or sea, and fear welled up in this capable, confident pilot so much so that he was practically paralyzed.

nativity-1 | Eavesdropping with Johnny

Mary knew fear.  She lay on a makeshift straw bed, surrounded by curious and perhaps agitated animals.  She was in the throes of her first labor and about to give birth to her child in a barn.  The only one there to attend her was her nervous, rough-handed fiancé Joseph.  (I can tell you, if I’d been the only one present to attend to Jill at Griffin’s birth, she’d have suffered abject terror, and rightly so!)

The shepherds knew fear.  They lived without cover in the fields.  (They’d have been envious of Mary’s barn.)  The slept fitfully if at all, always nervous about the wolves who might slink through the darkness and attack their sheep.

Yet, something happened that night that cause the fear in Bethlehem to melt away.  The baby was born, and even the animals perceived that this was no ordinary child.  As Mary cradled the baby, the animals calmed, and a hush fell over the stable.  Joseph’s knees must have trembled unto kneeling, and who knows whether he knelt out of exhaustion or out of wonder that this tiny baby was also the very Son of God.

As Jesus emerged into the world, the shepherds, too, lost their fear.  In contrast to the quiet and reverent scene in Mary’s barn, in the fields the night’s darkness gave way, pierced by a light surrounding an angel of the Lord.  “Do not be afraid,” the angel said, “for I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people: for unto you this day is born in the City of David the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

As if coming up out of drowning water and taking a first blessed breath, the shepherds realized in the angel’s words that they had been given life anew.  Their prior fears vanished; they rushed to the place about which the angel spoke; and they found there the Incarnate God, come to live among humanity to show them that he loves them, lying in the arms of his mother.  They shared the angel’s words with Mary, who we are told “treasured them and pondered them in her heart.”  Mary was speechless and the shepherds could not stop speaking.  They left the Lord to proclaim his birth, glorifying God in the highest.

Storm at Night | Waves batter the shoreline at one of Maine'… | Flickr

For Captain Bill Winkepauw, the fear that enveloped his plane that night melted away when in the corner of his eye he saw a flicker of hope emerging in the cold and the dark.  He turned his head to see, and he realized that the solitary beam from a coastal Maine lighthouse pierced the darkness.  That light enabled Captain Winkepauw to get his bearings, and he followed it, and then its subsequent lighthouse brothers, all along the coastline until he made his way safely home.  Captain Winkepauw landed his plane without incident, and he returned to his dwelling that Christmas Eve, only a little late and worse for wear in time to share the holiday with his wife and children.  Never before had he understood the joy that was born when God’s light entered into the world’s darkness.  Never again would he forget it.

In the following years, Captain Winkepauw shared this joy by making annual Christmas Eve runs over all the lighthouses along the coast.  He dropped Christmas packages from his plane for all the kids whose families lived isolated in the lighthouses.  When Captain Winkepauw became too old to continue the tradition, others picked it up, and Christmas joy is still shared along the coastal lighthouses to this day.

In our world, in these days, the churning existential blizzard is so relentless that it confuses and disorients.  We begin to distrust our bearings, and our anxiety threatens to overwhelm us.  But the light born this night in Bethlehem still shines!  It pierces as pinpricks in the darkness and shows us the way.  Indeed, it shines because it is also born within each of us.  Like the lighthouse keepers dotting the coastline who guided Bill Winkepauw home, the Christ light within us shows one another the way.  And like the good Captain back to those lighthouses, through our gestures of grace and care for one another, we incarnate God’s gift of grace.           The light still pierces the darkness, even ours, even in these days.  The light shows us the way through the storm.  It melts fear and gives great joy.  Like Mary, let us ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts.  And then like the shepherds—and like Captain Bill Winkepauw—let us go from this place to spread our joy, glorifying and praising the tiny child who is God, who is born this day. 

[i] This story is told by Charles Kuralt in the audio book, Charles Kuralt’s Christmas.

The Quickening

On May 27, 1537, the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London rang through the air.  Bonfires were lit all over the city, and free wine was distributed to the poor.  Spontaneous celebrations spread outward through the countryside.  As far away as Oxford, people crowded into churches to give praise to God.  And why?  One Oxford preacher said it best from the pulpit.  “Like one given of God,” he boomed, “the child quickened in the mother’s womb.”[i]

The mother of whom the preacher spoke was Queen Jane Seymour, wife of King Henry VIII.  The child was the future King Edward VI, the prince for which king and country had forever longed.  The identities are still well-known to us, but that verb is archaic.  We no longer use it and may have lost its meaning: “The child quickened in the mother’s womb.”

The Seymour Brothers: The Messiest Family In The Tudor Court
Jane Seymour and Edward VI

Prior to our modern era, there was no more important or momentous occasion in a pregnancy than the quickening.  It was the moment at which the mother first felt the baby move within her womb.  Practically, until the age of sonograms, the quickening was the surest indicator that a woman was, in fact, pregnant.  Legally, the quickening was a moment of distinction.  For instance, a pregnant criminal could be executed prior to the quickening but not after.   Philosophically and theologically, ancient thinkers as far back as Aristotle considered that the moment of quickening coincided with “ensoulment,” the animation of a fetus into a life.

But beyond even all of this, and even as the term has fallen completely out of use, the quickening alludes to something both more profound and intimate.  In the eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote after the quickening of her child, “I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie.”

That resonates with me, though admittedly, of course, no father has ever actually experienced a quickening.  That first flutter is an encounter solely between mother and child.  Even so, I remember being slack-jawed and stupefied some weeks later, the first time Jill took my hand and placed it on her stomach, when Griffin shifted, and I felt within Jill a life.  A fresh twist to the knot, indeed.

That feeling is more than joy, more than wonder, more than relief.  Even though it is hoped for and expected, the quickening is nevertheless the stop-you-in-your tracks end of a world.  With the barely-detectable brush of a tiny foot or elbow, everything that has gone before plummets in relative importance, and everything that lies ahead is miraculous with possibility.  Though the child is still far from birth, every priority shifts in that moment.  The focus of every concern changes.  Where we were the center of our lives, we now see that we live to protect, support, form, and raise this child we do not yet see.  The very what and why for which one lives alters radically, and all with a flutter.

Whether the womb is that of queen or pauper, Cathedral bells should ring.  Wine should be shared (though not with the pregnant mother!) and toasts made.  Preachers should proclaim the wonder and grace of God.  With a quickening, something new has announced that it will enter into our world, and with each entrance the cosmos is made new.

It is the quickening of John that Elizabeth experiences in today’s Gospel.  Luke the Evangelist tells us, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb.”

Church of the Visitation - Wikiwand
The wonderful statue of Elizabeth meeting Mary at the Church of the Visitation in the Holy Land

For Elizabeth, this moment has been a lifetime in coming.  She was barren and far beyond the possibility of childbearing by any worldly means.  Elizabeth’s and her husband Zechariah’s lives had long been lived through the hard experience of what the world offers and what it withholds.  Yes, some months prior the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah and promised John to them, but the message was so unbelievable, the life-changing promise so impossible, that Zechariah literally had no words to voice it.  Until this moment, the angel’s promise was ephemeral and unreal.  Until this quickening. 

Mary approaches, the baby leaps, and the world changes.  Neither John nor Jesus is yet near birth.  The pain of delivery is months away, the fearful flight to Egypt further away still.  The parents’ apprehensive witness to Jesus’ precocious upbringing and John’s wild streak is on the distant horizon.  John’s execution, followed by Jesus’ crucifixion, won’t occur for decades.  Easter morning is still unfathomable.  Yes, and yes, and yes.  But it is at this moment that the world tilts on its axis.  It is this moment when, for Elizabeth and Mary (and I daresay for Zechariah and Joseph, too) everything changes.  You cannot un-feel the quickening.  The child—in this case the both the harbinger John and the savior Jesus—have made known that they are alive, and gestating, and readying themselves to enter our world.  And for those who love them, or who anticipate loving them, it is the quickening rather than the birth that reorients life.  It is the quickening that grants the realization that the Messiah is not theoretical—not a theological concept or a vague hope, but actual, and real, and poised to incarnate God in our midst—that jolts us out of our old reality and into this stupefying new one.  It is the quickening that opens Mary’s mouth and fills her lungs, that gives voice to the Magnificat.

Friends, this is what Advent is all about.  As much as I love all the cozy preparations for Christmas, the right frame of reference isn’t hot cocoa and eggnog.  The right frame is that completely unexpected, unpreparable moment when we feel the flutter and cannot deny it; when we know that, through the new hasn’t quite yet been born, everything is already different; when—on a dime—everything that long held value and our attention is meaningless compared to what we know comes next. Do you understand what I’m talking about?  Every mother does.  Every father does.  Indeed, anyone who has ever placed a palm on a pregnant stomach and felt the uncanny, wondrous, eye-watering, Cheshire cat-grinning movement of new life knows how it changes everything.  That’s where we are this day.  That’s what we’re supposed to feel a week before the Nativity.  The world we’ve been walking through until this moment isn’t the world in front of us.  What that old world offers and what it withholds isn’t the whole story.  To be sure, as in the lives to come for Elizabeth and Mary, there will be pain, and apprehension, and bewilderment, and sorrow.  But there will also be revelation, and grace, and resurrection when we least expect these things.  Because the Incarnate God is alive, and gestating, and preparing to be born among us.  This is the moment that shifts every priority and refocuses all concern.  Where we were the center of our lives, we now see that we live to serve this child we do not yet see.  Let the bells peal!  Pass around the wine!  Light the fires!  Let the preachers boom!  This is the quickening. 

Why are church bells ringing today at 6pm across the country? -  Buckinghamshire Live

[i] https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/05/the-quickening-the-momentous-pregnancy-event-that-became-a-relic.html.  All descriptions of quickening come from this article, including the Mary Wollstonecraft quote.