Listening to old voices
December 25, 2016, Hebrews 1:1-4, 10-14, Titus 3:4-7
There’s a spider at my window
And she spins a web of truth
More beautiful than all those memories
And she surely is God’s artist
As she’s caught the morning dew.
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees.
[“Listening to Old Voices” by John Hiatt, copyright at Universal Music Publishing Group, from the album “Stolen Moments,” A&M, 1990 ]
When we decorated the Christmas tree when I was a child each of us had special ornaments that only we could hang on the tree. I still have mine. Some have hung on trees in my house every year since 1964.
One of my mother’s special ornaments was a spider in a web. She bought it for her first Christmas after she was married. It came from Marshall Fields in Chicago—and that was a big deal. My mother grew up in Peoria, Illinois, as I did. There are two kinds of people who grow up in Peoria: those who cannot wait to go to Chicago, and those are afraid of every going anywhere near Chicago. My mother’s family and my family have always been in the former category.
My parents married in 1958, a few months after my mother graduated from college. My father had graduated a year before and gotten a job in Chicago. So my mother’s wish came true, the new family settled in the suburb of Willow Springs. Like a lot of newlyweds, they didn’t have much money when they started out. Mom splurged on the spider web ornament—and it came from Marshall Fields, the State Street store in the heart of The Loop.
Starting when I was five years old, and several years after that my mother would take my brother and me to Chicago on a Saturday in December. We rode the train, which was kind of a big deal. She said it was so Alan and I could see the windows at Marshall Fields, and we did, but it was also so mom could shop there and at Kroch’s and Brentano’s a book store that was just down the street. It was the early ‘70s. Mom liked to point out that she tried to keep her charge accounts active in the Big City.
A few years later Mom and I would take a bus to the Loop to shop that a church sponsored. I’m not much of a shopper, never have been, but there was something contagious about my mother’s love for Chicago. I felt that excitement when I went to college in the Chicago area. The el trains all stop at Howard Street, the line that divides Chicago from the suburbs, and those who continue into Chicago have to get on a different train. It simply felt more exciting to be in the city itself.
A dozen years ago I found myself in Chicago in December. I was scheduled to preside at a wedding there on a Saturday, but for some reason the rehearsal was on Thursday, so I had a whole day to kill. Of course I went to Marshall Field’s and looked at the decorated windows. There was a sort of German village filled with European craft and food stalls on the block with the famous Picasso sculpture. I wondered around, looking, not buying anything, just looking. For the first time I realized that shopping in Chicago had been mom’s thing. I sort of borrowed here excitement all those years ago.
I found an ornament with a spider in a web. It didn’t look like the one that used to hang on our tree, but it was the same idea. This one came with a folk tale, from the Ukraine.
The Story of the Spider and the Christmas Tree
There once was a widow who lived in a cramped old hut. She lived with her children. Outside their home was a tall pine tree. From the tree dropped a pine cone that soon started to grow from the soil.
The children were excited about the prospect of having a Christmas tree, and so they tended to it, ensuring that it would continue to grow and be strong until it became tall enough to be a Christmas tree to take inside their home.
Unfortunately, the family was poor and even though they had a Christmas tree, they couldn’t afford to decorate it with ornaments for Christmas. And so on Christmas Eve, the widow and her children went to bed knowing that they would have a bare Christmas tree on Christmas morning.
The spiders in the hut heard the sobs of the children and sad cries, and decided they would not leave the Christmas tree bare.
So the spiders created beautiful webs on the Christmas tree, decorating it with elegant and beautiful silky patterns.
When the children woke up early on Christmas morning they were jumping for excitement. They went to their mother and woke her up. “Mother, you have to come see the Christmas tree. It’s so beautiful!”
As the mother woke and stood in front of the tree, she was truly amazed at the sight that lay before her eyes.
One of the children opened up the window as the sun was shining. The sun would slide along the floor and slowly glide up the Christmas tree and onto the webs. As the rays of the sun shone on the tree, the webs turned into glittering silver and gold color; making the Christmas tree dazzle and sparkle with a magical twinkle.
From that day forward the widow never felt poor, instead she was always grateful for all the wonderful gifts she already had in life.
I don’t think my mother knew this story. I’m pretty sure she bought the spider in a web ornament in 1958 because she liked it and she could afford it. I never heard this folk tale growing up. But in 1990, when I heard John Hiatt sing “Listening to Old Voices,” I thought of this ornament, and the trees that it hung on. My parents only had six Christmases together before my father died of leukemia.
But every year since 1958, there’s been a beautiful spider and web on my mother’s Christmas tree. It connects her to happy newlywed memories and heart-breaking memories of a life that was turned upside down by a swift, impersonal disease.
As more than five decades have passed the bitter sweet balance has slowly turned to the sweet side, but the pain, loss, grief and sadness have never, and will never, go away completely. Love is like that. It leaves a shadow, even after it’s gone; it’s not gone.
This morning I expect all of us here are remembering and reliving Christmases past. Looking back to our former selves, our former lives, possibly even to ornaments or traditions that remind us of things that used to be and how much has changed.
But also of things that cannot and will not ever change:
In the beginning, Lord you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands;
They will perish, but you remain, they will all wear out like clothing…
But you are the same, and your years will never end. [Hebrews 1:10-12, NRSV]
We remember the promise of renewal, of a fresh start this day, in the birth of God’s son. The one through whom the rich, living grace of the Holy Spirit erupted into the world. The one who makes all things new. All our lives, all our losses are lived in the deep reality of the love of Jesus Christ. Love that changed everything. Love that changes everything. The bright light of pure light where there is no shadow at all. Amen.