Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung. It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night.
As we wended our way through this Christmas and the last winding stretch of road of the year of our Lord 2007, a particular image seemed imprinted on a good many of our activities. I should warn you. I am a great lover of symbolism, and try to catch things in the act of signifying as often as possible. For example, a piece of fennel from my salad is the Christmas star. Of course it is. But if I hadn't been a Christian, I probably would have been a unbearably superstitious person. Thankfully, the Lord had mercy on this soul, and my flights of fancy are pinned to a greater Backdrop. They might try to wiggle, escape, or flutter away from time to time, but just end up dragging the eternal dropcloth with them, bringing an immediate and palpable excitement to the ancient Story.
(By the way, if you ever see a writer capitalizing words willy-nilly, beware. They might be a symbol-lover. )
Well, as it turns out, everything came up roses. My handmade decorations, the choice of music Karl played in church, a chilly and beautiful walk through a park, and most of all - a newfound joy in each other. "Christmas came early," I said one day. It was true. The past few months had been a difficult readjustment to life together in small, sometimes lonely and frustrating spaces. A pervasive bad mood was hanging like a sheet of blank white sky and we both hunkered down and prayed for a change in the weather. I remember several Advent Sundays singing "disperse the gloomy clouds of night"and really meaning it. And then came the response: a sudden, spontaneous, and (almost) inexplicable compulsion to "love one another". We opened many beautiful presents on Christmas morning, but this early gift was our favourite. A rose amid the cold of winter.
And so, fitfully humming strains of old and faithful hymns, we arose early on Christmas Eve morning and decided to go Somewhere New for a walk. The Parc de Belleville had acquired something of mythic proportions in my head (no surprise there), mainly for its role in the classic film Le Ballon Rouge. To get there, you have to walk through the area of Belleville, which has a twin in our own neighborhood, both being large concentrations of Asian populations. But this is really the only thing they have in common - otherwise, a whole other world. The signs in Chinese characters, though still a mystery to us, were strangely familiar in these hills on the north end of Paris. Up, up, up we climbed the steep streets, colorful and kooky, where rooftops meet the street half a block down, and a pile of garbage looks poetical. It is hard to tell where the graffiti ends and the murals commissioned by the city begin.
Following the signs to the parc, we suddenly found ourselves taking in a stunning view of the city of Paris, softened by the rays of cold light glancing over the hillside in a strange, wintery way. "La lumiere d'hiver" is legendary in its beauty, refracted through the particles of pollution which blanket the city. Armed with sweaters, yogurt, and biscuits, we basked in the pale sun and speculated about the identities of ghostly spires and building frames on the horizon. Next, a quick jaunt through the paths during which I mindlessly gathered two winter rosebuds, and we were soon down on "ground level" again. We looked back up. Something about the angle of the light and the angle of the park made it a deliciously disorienting experience.
Why not a stop at a cafe? Elbows on the bar, we politely said bonjour to the lady sitting next to us - a blonde in a full-length furcoat with a cigarette making curly-cues, which approached ever so often the wry mouth. A mouth that had seen everything. Forty-five minutes later, we were still idly scraping the residue from the bottom of our cups of the best coffee in Paris and listening wide-eyed to her stories about the Chinese mafia. Later on, plenty of complaints about the upcoming smoking ban: "Zeese are ze last days of freedom!" You just never know what a friendly hello will get you into.
Indeed. Later on that day, we donned Paris blacks and browns (so festive) and made our way to Christ-mass. S. Padre Pio is a tiny oratoire at the very northern edge of Paris where an ancient and benevolent Italian priest leads the few but faithful. Karl's friendly manner had landed him a gig here, backing up a soprano on a few songs. Or that's what he thought at first. It turned out that they wanted him to play the entire service, complete with Kyries , Glorias and Credos! He was given some of the music, but with no measure markings and no guarantee of key. As the task ahead grew more and more formidable, memories of a music history test came to his unlikely aid. That, with many whispered directions and a few standard hymns in his back pocket for the occasional lull, he found his way through the humming, smoky jungle. Granted, it was a Christmas mass never heard before and probably never to be heard again, but the priest was sweet and thankful. It was good to be with fellow worshipers of Christ in such a fascinating atmosphere. At one point, the congregants were invited to come up and kiss the feet of the baby Jesus. As I approached, I watched His little face. A perfect rosebud mouth.
This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere; True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us, And lightens every load.