Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 148) [NRSV]
I guess it is not so surprising that one of the lectionary possibilities for the day after Christmas is this hymn of praise to God the Creator -- an echo of the creation stories of Genesis. After all, the Gospel of John begins, not with a nativity story (those, as a commenter last week pointed out, are found only in Matthew and Luke and are quite different, one from the other), but with the famous introduction that reads "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Since one of the four Gospels begins with a re-introduction of the creation story, with Christ as its first and most central character, it's logical that one of our four lectionary choices this week is a reminder of the magnificence of God's creation. The readings from Isaiah and Hebrews proclaim the saving grace of God, and the reading from Matthew tells the harrowing story of Joseph's next dream and the flight of the tiny Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous insanity, but the reading from Psalms enables us to indulge ourselves in gratitude for a beautiful universe.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I try to find time every week, if not every day, to revel in the the outside world. Even though I live in an older, inner-ring suburb of an older, rust-belt midwestern city, I have no trouble finding spots of natural beauty. We are fortunate that powers-that-be of decades ago set aside vast spaces for parks, and for the 400-acre arboretum cemetry where I often walk, and that "little old ladies in tennis shoes" of only a few decades ago faced down some state visionaries dreaming of an interstate through one of our loveliest lake areas, a natural stopover for migrating birds in the spring and fall. Our city sits on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, and my New Year's Resolution, if I have one, which I guess I do now, is to find some time at least once a month to spend out on the lakefront.
This past year, I have had a considerable amount of good fortune in terms of witnessing the natural beauty of our country. I've taken long walks on the Atlantic coast and the Pacific Coast. I've trudged the dunes of Lake Michigan, walked the paths near Lake Chautauqua, and hiked in the forests and to the waterfalls of western North Carolina and western Oregon. I've been to Chicago and Portland, Traverse City and St. Augustine. I've flown 3,000 miles west and back again, and driven 1,500 miles south and north (with only one major car repair on my van with its 120,000 miles to show for it!). My report is that, despite the nasty divisiveness of the election, we live in a land of dazzling natural diversity. It makes complete sense for us to pause at this time of winter solstice, when much of nature is undergoing a process of rebirth underground and under snow, and offer our gratitude for the gift of this earth and its universe.
A few years ago, on an annual family vacation to St. Augustine, Florida, we all decided to go parasailing. As our guides took us an an extremely bumpy motoboat journey (I think they wanted to impress our teenagers with their speed and daring) over the waves and way offshore to our starting point, we passed a gannet riding the waves much more comfortably than we were. Gannets are large seabirds, seen out over the waters of St. Augustine only when driven inward by sea storms. I love their beauty -- stark white bodies with sleek black wings -- and their torpedo-like grace as they dive for fish from vast heights above the water. They don't come into shore, so the only way to view one close -up is to be out on the ocean yourself. Our guides were surprised by how thrilled I was to see what they had thought was "just some other kind of big gull."
The best was yet to come, though. I wasn't really all that confident about the whole parasailing idea. You hook yourself into a harness and the motorboat takes off, gradually lifting you 1400 feet into the air -- and heights aren't really my thing. But the flight is peaceful and the view is extraordinary. As we sailed over an ocean rolling in colors of teal, green and blue, a giant ray swam underneath us. We often see dead rays washed up on the beach, but I had never seen a live one except in the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where the exhibit of rays and sea turtles is mesmerizing. What an amazing sight that was from the air: that huge and ancient creature, with the odd shape that has served it well for 400 million years, gliding along just under the surace of the water, oblivious to the humans with whom it shares the world.
I realize that I could go on and on. Sometimes you have no idea where you will end up, when you sit down and start to write. I thought, at the beginning of the week, that I would write about the Flight to Egypt -- I have been so engrossed inthe dark and foreboding hints in this year's Advent readings. But as the week passed, I was increasingly drawn to the reading from Psalms, and now I can see why. Many of the other readings have been ominous, but they have also been about attentiveness: to signs around us, to proclamations, to angels and dreams and today, to the the natural world. We really need this time -- especially on an early winter day like this one when the sky is already darkening and huge flakes of snow are falling, with a great softness that belies the difficulties they are no doubt creating for holiday travelers -- we need this time at the end of the calendar year and beginning of the church year, to reflect on a world far beyond ourselves.