Tuesday, 25 December 2012

A Christmas Pilgrimage

The drive from Rosebud to Breton, Alberta seemed to go on forever. Darkness descends much too early in the dead of winter, so the reward of seeing countryside one hasn’t seen before was diminished, left mostly to imagination as I passed through a few lit villages on the way. It was our second last show in a little tour that started out as a whim - spurred on by an unction to share story and song with whoever wanted to engage us in the Advent Season leading up to Christmas. This was presentation number 14 out of 15, at the end of a long drive on a wintry Tuesday night. It’s not hard to find the church in these little towns. It’s the one with all the lights on, anticipating our arrival. I pulled into the parking lot to find that Cassia Schramm, my story-telling partner in this little adventure, had already arrived, her tire tracks the first to break the newly-fallen snow. Well not the first. She had startled a deer when she pulled in. She pointed out it’s tracks leading into the stand of trees by the parking lot. We were welcomed by the youth pastor - a warm young man with a young family who had been at the church for a number of years. He didn’t know how many people would be coming, optimistically helping us set up the bit of amplification we needed to tell our simple story. He wasn’t a technician, but helped as best he could. People started filing in, including someone who understood how to make the guitar amplification work, so we stepped up to the microphones to do a sound test with a bit of song and story. And the place fell silent with anticipation. As we sat down to wait for the evening to start, we were warmly welcomed by individuals expressing their gratitude for our coming to share in the life of their church in this special season. Some of them drew connections to family that we might know about. And like virtually every community we have shared with, there were family and friendship connections that spanned generations. 
We finally spun our simple script-in-hand staging of Above Bethlehem, some people shuffling restless children from the room, others closing their eyes to listen to language that transported them somewhere, then opening eyes again as ears heard Cassia’s crystalline voice fill the little church with music. An hour passed surprisingly quickly and we were finished.  
Tear-filled conversations with individuals after the presentation revealed open, seeking, grateful hearts. The last people to leave the church - helping me pack a few music stands into the car - were an elderly retired gentleman who used to run a farm implement dealership and his aging mother. She thanked me again for telling a story that was “different” but full of the Gospel. I acknowledged her thanks by saying that it was an honor to receive such words from a saint. I truly meant it, and she knew it.

I think we live in one of the most beautiful, open and loving provinces in the country. This little Advent tour of Alberta communities has shown people of different denominations, in different parts of the province - both urban and rural, to be soul-seekers. We are a people hungry for story and song that reveal the softness of the human heart, teasing out the mysteries we wonder about late at night and early in the morning. We are a people who understand that these mysteries - the things we talk about that bring tears or a quickening of our heartbeat - inevitably bind us one to another in some way. 
As I drove the much shorter distance from Breton back to Millet, I passed through towns I had visited as a child, riding with my Dad to auctions and sales. He too was one of those Albertans whose heart quickened to significant story and song shared. We’re all the same, really - whether we’re farmers, academics, business folk, moms and dads, teenagers, pastors or artists. We crave spiritual story and song.

I passed farmyards lit up with hundreds of Christmas lights - barns and sheds with giant signs declaring “Peace on Earth”, “Joy To The World”, like sentinels in the darkness along the road. Some of them had stars that crowned the highest building on the yard. In one lit-up 1960s farm-house picture window, a young man stood on tip-toes to place a light on the point of a Christmas tree - reaching. I don’t know if he realized in that moment that to my eyes, he was a living art installation reflecting a deep spiritual poetry. He certainly couldn’t know that a pilgrim in one of the cars passing his farmhouse on an evening before Christmas would see him as a sacred sentinel to faith and family, stretching his arms upward in a gesture that to me was as sacred as any Priests’.   
As my car headlights cut bright light into the curves and bends of the road, snow filtering down and through the cones of light, I felt like I was returning home from a pilgrimage to holy places in Alberta. I wondered if this was how the Wise Men felt on their way home from a tiny out-of-the-way Bethlehem, their eyes having been opened to the inherent goodness in shepherds gathered around a husband and wife with a Holy Baby. I wonder if like I, they encountered families and communities with meaningful expressions of heart made visible in small rituals, the ancient equivalent of the man stringing lights on his Christmas tree; barns lit up with bright statements of hope; or an elderly Breton Alberta Saint whose words were prophetic because I suspect she was well practiced in the art of blessing.
And as I reflect on the closing of Above Bethlehem and May and Joe, I realize that we folk in Rosebud have been visited by and indeed have had the privilege to visit wise men and shepherds and angels ... priests and saints. I realize that this province is full of such people, searching to uncover the mysteries of the human heart and it’s significance within the sacrament of their everyday lives - the words “Merry Christmas” words of blessing made even more sacred by people that actually believe what they say. 

So, to all of you wise persons, shepherds, angels, priests and saints on this Christmas Day, “Merry Christmas” from this Rosebud pilgrim.

Morris Ertman  

Thursday, 6 December 2012

"Rosebud Winter Nights", Christmas In Alberta

Rosebud Winter Nights
from Christmas In Alberta 2012

We’re obsessed with flying in Rosebud these days. Flying angels, flying trucks, flying marriage ceremonies, flying home for Christmas. All the best things come out of the sky: birds, swirling snow at Christmas, rain in the spring. Some of the best stuff just stays up there, like rainbows, fluffed white clouds, stars, the moon, the sun. Sometimes on a crisp clear blue-sky day,there’ll be a trace of white moving across the sky like a giant chalk line, the front of it looking like a silver arrow. And at Christmas, those little arrows carry Moms and Dads, Sons and Daughters, Grandpas and Grandmas, friends and relatives, flying home for Christmas - making a pilgrimage to the places where they will always belong, leaving white streaks of light behind that trace their journey for a time, then fluff away into white wisps. And on a clear night above the hills around Rosebud, sometimes you can see other white streaks piercing across the sky - shooting stars, lasting just long enough to catch a frosty gasp from those watching. Sometimes the night sky collects light into dancing streaks, and when that happens, everyone comes out of their houses to gaze at the heavens, gathering in groups of neighbors, huddling against the cold, faces illuminated by dancing light. And if the celestial entertainment lasts long enough, someone will come outside with mugs of hot chocolate for everyone, and those with mitts on will pull them off so the warmth from the mug can radiate into their hands. The ones who didn’t bring mitts don’t have to worry about negotiating hot chocolate and finding a pocket for mitts. I guess they’re the smartest - they who come out of houses on a cold winter night without mitts because they have faith to believe in generous souls who always make hot chocolate when the night sky is full of dancing light. Maybe they know because they’ve been here the longest - elders, or old souls in young bodies. Some of the people without mitts are holding hands. They say “no thanks” to the offer of hot chocolate. They don’t need it to keep warm. Maybe they’re the smartest, or maybe just the luckiest. Some of the others who hold hot chocolate think maybe they are. ... So they stop looking at the sky to look across at a particular face pointed heavenward, and they wonder if that particular face would turn his or her particular gaze towards them. And sometimes it happens, and there’s a double gasp like the one that happened when the shooting star streaked toward the horizon moments earlier. And maybe the gasp that accompanied the shooting star was the first wish placed into the air by both those faces. Maybe it’s their gasps that gather into ice crystals that fall out of the sky on this particular night where there are no clouds, a night where lights dance in random sky-patterns. And maybe this night was made for these two people gazing heavenward, looking for an excuse to fill the gap between them. So, they adjust their star-gazing positions toward one another. And in their journey, eyes occasionally gazing upward so they don’t look too interested, they bump into other night-sky gazers, sloshing hot chocolate onto the snow at their feet, saying “sorry” to the others who have seen this romantic pilgrimage coming for some time now. ... It’s a small town, after all. 
And everybody is warmed by the thought that love could waken on a winter night at Christmas, because that’s what Christmas is all about. Shepherds and Wise Men looking up at a sky where angels dance in sky patterns of light accompanied by voices singing. A young couple holding a baby in a fixer-upper cattle shed, a baby that isn’t the husband’s, but he’s OK with that. He’d had a visit from an angel telling him it was OK. So something that shouldn’t be OK is made into the most miraculous moment in the world, a moment that’s still celebrated 2012 years later. 

It’s getting late in Rosebud, and you can’t watch the sky all night, not if you have to get your rest for a Saturday double show day. The hot chocolate is finished, and people drift inside, leaving the couple now holding hands for the very first time. The couple doesn’t want the evening to end, so they go inside to help wash hot chocolate mugs, and when they’ve done that, they still don’t want the evening to end, so wind up digging out one of those movies - you know the ones where a pilot takes a girl up in a biplane to show her geese or the setting sun, or some such excuse just to show off a bit. And as they look through the collection of DVDs in the house on the hill where everyone eventually gathers outside at night to watch shooting stars and northern lights, then wash mugs after going inside, they come across A Christmas Carol, and because it’s Christmas, they put it into the DVD player instead of the movie about the guy who takes the girl for a ride in his biplane to watch geese flying as the sun sets. And they watch a classic Dickens Christmas story about a guy visited by three flying spirits. And when they get to the end, to the part where the crazy old guy opens his window to a frosty London morning to shout at a kid down in the street to get the biggest turkey he can and deliver it to the Cratchet house, the young couple curled up in the living room of the hot chocolate maker and her husband - the young couple who wished upon a star and found each other while dodging the other star gazers - feel like flying because the story in the movie makes them feel like flying, and their closeness to one another makes them feel like maybe they’ll take flight into some more of their life together, like the older couple curled up in the living room with them. And even though it’s late, they’re not worried about the double show day any more. They think maybe their show will have more magic because they’ve found a new magic they’ve never felt before, the magic of belonging to someone, the same magic that’ll bring all of those people to the show tomorrow, some of them having flown home in one of those silver arrows streaking chalk lines to join friends and relatives in a village called Rosebud to watch a story that happens to be about angels and flying and forgiveness and love and transformation and hope and miracles and new life and all kinds of other good stuff  - and Pat Murphy’s stuffing that they’ll bring back to the dressing room after singing around dining room tables because it’s Christmas and everyone deserves to feel like their spirits are flying with people they love at tables filled with good food, like at the Cratchet house after the wispy white-haired guy in the movie discovered he was light as a feather. 


So the next day, the brand new couple who aren’t tired at all, don their angel costumes, wait for the light to come up on a stage filled with glittering bobbles that hang like stars in the heavens, waiting for the song that cues them onto the stage ... flying! 
Morris Ertman