Dear Grace Church Family and Friends,
Today, as I write on this Monday, December 6th, is St. Nicholas’ feast day. Yes! That St. Nicholas! It is also the first full day of our two new kittens that arrived yesterday in our home. Just one day in, they have already become a gift of life and love for D’aun and me. So, I really wanted to say something incredibly serious about the “Real” St. Nicholas and the gifts of life and love that are ours during this Advent and coming Christmas. But I’ve been beaten to it by Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, Assistant Bishop of Virginia. And, more blessedly for you, she says what I wanted to say, but in a much less serious tone. So, here is her take on St. Nick, in her reflection entitled, “Windows and Chimneys”. I hope it will speak for your heart as it does mine.
Windows and Chimneys
Houses need air. They need to breathe somehow, in ways that let the scents of spring and snow in and let the heaviness of dust and smoke out. I’m not a big fan of ultra-modern hermetically sealed “residential units” with windows that don’t open and electronic fireplaces, however efficient they claim to be. I think we need windows, and chimneys when we can get them.
Today is the Feast of Saint Nicholas, which is what got me thinking about all this. Bishop Nicholas of Myra was in many ways like other bishops, going to meetings and caring for his people. An ancient legend maintains that he saved three girls from spinsterhood – or worse – by tossing through their windows gold coins for their dowries, which landed in their shoes. This was the start of the tradition that Saint Nicholas (as he is now known) leaves treats in shoes and socks of children around the world, via windows or chimneys – in some places on his feast day, December 6, and in other places on Christmas Eve. Without windows or chimneys, there’s no route for Saint Nicholas!
Windows let fresh air in. Windows give us views of the world outside. Windows allow the light inside to be seen in the world. There are so many parallels to the things that we need in our metaphorical diocesan house. We need the breath of God, the wind of the spirit, and we need it to disturb our equilibrium and sense of control. We need to be always interacting with God’s world, even when we are about what seems like mundane inside-church business, so that we don’t end up suffocating in a stale and airless space.
And in fact, the Episcopal Church is a great place to be if you like windows and the circulation of fresh air. We can get stuck in traditions whose meaning we have forgotten, for sure, but in important matters, we are very reluctant to seal things too tightly. Unlike some branches of the larger tree, we are generally not keen on promulgating detailed doctrine that closes down discernment. There are boundaries, for sure, but deciding who’s in and who’s out is not really our sport. We like a strong foundation, and we have important and solid structures, and we know there are some things we need to fix and retrofit, but most of us don’t walk around with theological caulking guns, looking to seal out new ideas or new voices. We’re getting better at hearing the new voices, though there’s much more work to do, especially in matters of race and culture.
Even when it comes to worship and our sense of connection through the Book of Common Prayer, we leave a lot of room, with many more approved Eucharistic liturgies than most of us ever use, with all kinds of allowances for creativity in prayer, and with an expectation of the General Convention that new forms are emerging alongside the old ones. And that brings in the fresh air of all kinds of shared richness of music, language, emotion, and thought.
Windows have other benefits, too. To my mother’s dismay, I discovered early on that windows were a great way for my sister and me to escape the incarceration of naptime and head out to the backyard to play. More recently, while we all were stuck in our Covid bubbles, the Holy Spirit threw open a window into the world of the internet, expanding our reach and connecting us in a time of profound disconnection. Opening that window opened our kitchen doors to one another, and our front door to people all over the planet. Sharing bit of our home background through the flat window of a screen brought us close in subtle but important ways.
We need ways to see beyond our own surroundings, even as we are gathered. Windows are best when they are big enough to flood the house with light, and to shine like a beacon for when the world gets dark. Jesus told us to let our light shine, so that others can see our good works and give all the glory to God. If our fellowship doesn’t have windows so that we can see out and others can see in, how will we reveal the Kingdom? So much of evangelism is about giving people a window into the ways our hearts and our lives are different, and better, because we live them in the shadow of the cross – a shadow cast by the Light of Christ.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, which necessarily comes with a chimney. Chimneys seem to have all kinds of magical properties. Not only can Santa get up and down them, never mind all the cookies he’s eaten, he can do it with a sack of goodies, without knocking down the stockings.
In the Harry Potter novels, the wizards use fireplaces as a somewhat unpredictable transportation system, throwing pinches of green “floo powder” into the fire and announcing the location of the fireplace to which they wish to be teleported. Without a flue, a fire would make our place uninhabitable. Air has to come and go; the inside has to be connected to the outside, or you just can’t breathe.
When the winter weather has us shutting the windows and drawing the curtains early, there’s still that passageway for the numinous, the otherworldly. Maybe it’s the smoke, like the smoke of incense, rising with our prayers into the cloud of God’s presence. Prayers can be like floo powder, taking us unexpected places, and sometimes bringing gifts beyond what we can imagine. It’s all about keeping the connection open between this reality and the greater reality of God. A chimney works like a window for the invisible, the ineffable, and the incredible.
Like the whole season of Advent, the windows and chimneys in our diocesan house remind us that we don’t have things all sealed up, and that is a very good thing. They keep us from focusing in on ourselves, bringing our attention outward into the world and upward into the realm of spirit. They let the Spirit blow into places that have become closed and stale, and they provide hatches into unconventional exploration and discovery. And they carry our prayers, day and night, like the incense of the evening offering.
May Saint Nicholas fill your shoes or your socks with the gold of God’s love, may your chimney draw well, and may your windows be just a little bit drafty.
Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson