Another Advent devotional. This one, from 2010. The theme: “Rejoice!” Here are some words of explanation:
Our theme for Advent this year is “Rejoice!” based on Isaiah’s prophecy about signs of new life in the wilderness, the blossoming of hope in parched places. The crocus in the desert signals the presence and power of God, so those who are weary or fearful can take heart in the midst of desolation. According to Isaiah, so great is the joy and so profound the healing Emmanuel God brings that those who were lame now leap and those who were speechless now sing.
We live, however, in the tensions between the reign of God established by Jesus and the final fulfillment of that reign. The needs of today’s world cry out to us. We, too, yearn for salvation, for the one who enables new life to blossom within our very souls. The promise held before us offers God’s love and mercy and God’s power to heal and restore. All Creation – even the barren desert – joins in this transformation.
My hands look wearied, weathered. The wrinkles marking the joints of my fingers are white; my nails are picked at; my skin is rough. These months have felt rough. The pain and sorrow of being merely human threatened to leave my spirit as wearied as the hands I’ve wrung in fear, in isolation, in anticipation.
I am no gardener. I try but I kill things. To me the most poignant image of something rising out of nothing, of hopes realized is in the making of bread
I look down at the mixing bowl, and the ingredients spread before me. And I look at my hands. Clean in preparation; the only soap in the kitchen is dish soap—extra dense and sudsy (strong enough for the remnants of a crusty casserole)—and the scent lingers on my fingertips. As I survey the flour, salt, eggs, and review the recipe, I am reminded of the size of our kitchen (small) and the amount of counter-space (nominal). I have never made bread before, not real bread. Not without youth to my credit, and the help of a mother or grandmother. Baking, however, runs in the length of these fingers. More and more the youth is undeniably leaving my hands, the strength and maturity of adulthood showing itself in the veins and lines. I look down the length of my slim fingers, with trimmed and painted nails, and I see my mother’s hands. My mother who baked. I have learned that baking means sharing. I delight in creating things from scratch—using only a fork and a spatula as my tools. The recipients’ smiles make the hard work worthwhile. It is not domestication; it is sharing. Though I have dabbled in cakes and brownies, bread remains uncharted territory. Not true bread. Banana bread; breads out of a box; muffins—those I have made. But today will be real bread.
I look down at my hands. They are clean. They are weathered. The cold, windy Texas winter has left them hardened and rough. Inside we hide from the wind but only barely escape the chill. I can see the peaks of my hands that serve as the first shield from the deafening wind. I can see the folds of skin in between my fingers—especially that tender spot between the thumb and forefinger—intended to be protected, yet white and cracked from neglect. These are the hands, and these are the ingredients. I am going to make bread. The months have been long, but I will create. For me this is theological. I have lost my center, and must remember what theology is. The ingredients spread before me, the promise of the product, the sharing—this is salvific; this is redemptive. This is sharing.
For all my worrying, the dough is finished, quicker and easier than I thought. The ingredients mixed together, and I followed directions. Rolling up my sleeves, I turned the dough over, kneading and folding. The hardest part was washing my hands after I had set the dough aside. The bits of dough clung to my under-moisturized fingers, flour mixing with cuticles, both melt off in the steaming water. Yet I still scrub, washing the promise—the hope—of something yet to come. The rising took twice as long as the words told me. Patience and nerves watched, worried that I would have dense, flat challah to present to friends awaiting something appearing more like real bread. (And I also think what a great sermon title ‘unintentionally unleavened’ would be.) The dough beat out my patience, eventually rising. I split the dough, braided the three pieces, and baked it. Despite the temperamental oven, the result exceeded expectations—golden, warm, perfect. I watched my hands nervously check the ingredients; watched them measure and stir, knead and fold. I watched them braid and bake. These hands slice and share.
Though based on the Eucharist, perhaps a sacrament more attuned to the Passion narratives of another Christmas season, the anticipation of the world borne anew at the death and resurrection, persists even at the waiting for the child to come; the star rising, the flower breaking through, the bread of life proofing, rising, baking, giving life. We were meant to create and combine ingredients, to take food and share it. It is life. Bread is life.