For the past 23 years, friends in Germany have been sending me a special gift every Advent: an Advent calendar called ‘Der andere Advent’, ‘The Other Advent’, with reflections and images for every day of the Advent and Christmas season.
In this year’s calendar, there was one reflection that stood out to me: A piece titled ‘Glory to God in the Deepest’. It is a piece about an unusual and magnificent chapel – 350 feet below ground. This chapel is St. Kinga’s Chapel, which is but one of four chapels built underground as part of the salt mines in Wieliczka in southern Poland. Those chapels contain statues, wall reliefs, even fancy chandeliers – carved out of the salt rock, made of salt. No wonder the magnificent mines made it on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
What makes St. Kinga’s Chapel and all other chapels so special is that they were made by miners. Miners who would do their regular, grueling and dangerous work of getting the salt out of the shafts – and who then would stay late to work on the chapels, bit by bit, little by little. It took 67 years to build St. Kinga’s Chapel in volunteer work alone – under the leadership of 3 different miner-artists
What struck me about this story is that there were these men who were immensely gifted, creating all this beautiful art in the darkness – but because they were born at a certain time in a certain place into a certain social class, they had to earn their living by doing menial labor. They just had no choice, no opportunity to escape their life.
I am wondering how many of those miners felt that they were in a place they didn’t want to be – quite literally day in, day out in the darkness and dampness of the mines, where a gas explosion could happen at any moment – but also in a more figurative sense. How many took these jobs out of bare necessity and rather would have done something else with their lives, but just couldn’t – like creating beautiful art? How many of them felt they were in darkness—literally, of course—but also because of what life had dealt them.
To be in a place we don’t want to be – this sums up my experience and the experience of many, if not most people, as we have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the experience of many, if not most, on this day. We are not supposed to travel to be with loved ones. We can’t celebrate as carelessly and exuberantly as in previous years. We can’t GO to church. We can’t belt out Christmas carols together. This smarts!
Right now, I’d rather be in a different place: together, in person, with you, in a church that smells of evergreens, surrounded by the holy chaos of young families, in the glow of dozens of candles as we lift our voices together in song. Instead I am sitting here in my living room, talking into a camera, and I have to imagine your faces in front of me.
But then have you ever realized that the beloved Christmas story is about two people who are not where they want to be? ‘In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…’, thus begins our story, and we hear how Joseph makes the trek of at least four days to Bethlehem, where his family is originally from, with his fiancée, Mary, who is about to give birth.
Mary probably would have much preferred to go through the birth of her first child with the women in her family and her village surrounding her, holding her, comforting her, encouraging her.
There have been scholarly arguments as to whether Mary really gave birth in a stable, with Joseph, ox and ass as her only company – but one thing is for certain: Mary is far away from home, in a place she doesn’t want to be, in a situation she doesn’t want to be in. Her baby is not welcomed and embraced in the same way as he would have had he been born in Mary’s home.
But somehow, somehow, the undesired place, time, and situation is hallowed, made holy. Angels sing as bewildered shepherds are among the first to welcome the child. Miners in the depth of a salt mine lovingly create sanctuaries, holy ground 350 feet underground. We come together, after all, albeit in this strange way, sitting at screens in different places – to celebrate and to ponder the mystery of this holy night, proving that even virtuality can be hallowed.
Those who sit in darkness can see, and share, great light. Indeed!
Places we don’t want to be become places where God wants to be and wants to meet us – be it a dark and dank place underground, a pandemic that wreaks havoc on so many different levels – or a manger in Bethlehem, a broken world that longs for healing and redemption.
God comes to us – as an infant, full of promise and possibilities. In art and music and nature. Through people around us who show they care. God comes and touches us and creates holiness, even in the worst, toughest, most challenging times and places of our lives.
This is something to hold on to as we feel disoriented and lost. God is still there, incarnated on this day and every day in our midst. Glory to God in the deepest!