"…earth is cramm'd with heaven." – Elizabeth B. Browning
Author: Denise S. Armstrong
I am Denise Stair Armstrong - worshipper. My purpose is to glorify God by enjoying Him in all of His Creation, among His People, His Bride, the Church; accentuating His glorious Bridge of reconciliation — the Cross of Jesus Christ — through words laced with His Truth, and cast abroad in the world He loves, and died and lives again to save.
I was born and raised Jamaican, where I also received my formal education at Shortwood Teachers' College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder of my education was gained by homeschooling our three wonderful children (Joseph, Charis, and Timothy) and parenting them with my husband Claude.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has "cramm'd earth with heaven", to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning. My heart is to encourage community, in the best sense of the word, through exalting the cross of Calvary.
I enjoy reading, writing, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing (only with Claude!) and digging into the Word of God.
So, in the parlance of the Jamaican oral tradition,
Riddle -me dat
Guess me dis riddle and par’haps not!’’
Translated: “Tackle this puzzle with me and see if you can figure out its meaning or not!”— What do you call a middle-aged, empty-nesting couple, hit by wonder-lust, (not wander-lust), stepping out of the boat and landing in the hinterlands of …wait for it…Germany?!!
Do you give up?! —“Claude and Denise!!!” Yes! Us! Me and the hubster! We are in Germany for the next few years! What started out as a necessary job development move has blossomed into a full-blown, fresh “Yes!” to the One who said, “Follow Me..!”. So we have stepped out of the Proverbial boat and have found amazing grace carrying us along. We are looking at each other and wondering…“ So…how are we doing this?!“
We are burning no ships behind us, much to the comfort of our loved ones back home in the US. However, we have found ourselves in the glorious company of those dreaming dreams again, catching fresh visions and singing new songs along the foot-paths and neighborhoods of a small but developing German town, language and translator apps in hand!
There is more than just the sun rising here in Germany—it’s also the Glory of the Lord! The church bells ring regularly; chirping birds flit by; a distant donkey brays. The rain falls. Sleek modern windmills grace the tops of hills, as do solar panels the roofs of homes of austere modern design, as well as surly turrets of tree smothered castles. Ancient forests skirted by copious black-berry bramble, watch as school-children, horse-drawn carriage, construction crane, and tractor travel a long asphalt road snaking its way lazily between harvested fields freshly tilled to receive the Fall rains—Ordinary time, ordinary people, on whom His glory rises.
Wonder with us about His ways as we wander the pathways He opens before us!
“Gathering In” is the delicious theme of The Cultivating Project’s issue this Fall. My essay contribution to it, “Healing between the Fragments”, postures me in an odd reversal. It is my first piece written as one scattered versus gathered, yet again—this time from the USA to Germany, my home for the next three years! (More on that next post! 🇺🇸🇯🇲🇩🇪)
Two other great reasons to pop over to this great free online publication: First, my dear husband Claude was asked by founder, Director of Cultivating, Lancia E. Smith, to contribute a piece this issue, sharing his perspectives on ‘Proximity’, as it relates to our current racial and cultural climate; and second, there is indeed included a delicious pumpkin bread recipe with accompanying story, Miss Lucy’s Pumpkin Bread Recipe, by fellow writer, Annie Nardone! This entire issue is well worth ‘gathering in’ to a comfy chair with a cup of tea, coffee or chocolate and settling down for soul-comfort on a cool Fall or breezy Caribbean evening.
Writing for ‘Cultivating’ magazine this Summer on the theme of “fullness” gave me a chance in the midst of major changes to be refilled with expectation of good. Despite all the unusual things that have happened in 2020 thus far, the seasons of life are unrelenting. In life or death and everything in between, the cycles of human existence course on whether we are ready or not, and can leave us dry and barren. The faithful God of Creation built promises into His redemptive plan for mankind, which when held in faith, give power that causes our dry places to bloom again and like a well-watered garden, welcome others into fullness. May you have such an encounter as you read and reflect.
As the COVID pandemic reached and spread across the United States where I live, many commentators described it in storm terminology. Lately, however as it has remained with us as a hovering nightmare, the metaphor has needed some adjusting! Yet undoubtedly, even at risk of seeming insensitive to those who have suffered great loss to COVID-19, many can attest to wondrous unexpected blessings, even miracles which have come in its wake, as a crazy storm has settled into our ordinary days. Seeing the ‘Christ In the Storm’ Rembrandt recently used by a friend as his Facebook profile photo reminded me of this post which it inspired a couple years ago. Hope you enjoy and share it!
Christ in Our Ordinary Storms
I can only imagine the jaw-dropping experience it must have been for the curator and other staff of the New England museum as they stood, the morning after, March 18, 1990, before the empty frame still hanging on the wall. Rembrandt’s 1663 masterpiece, ‘Christ in the Storm’, had been stolen.
Searching around on the Internet for another of Rembrandt’s works, I came across photographs of the gorgeous piece and the stupendous story of its disappearance. Rembrandt’s renowned ability to cast light on the subjects of his painting from unapparent sources was evident even in the tiny photos available online. His style produced an eerie animation effect on the roiling waves of the sea, as it spitefully tossed the boat with its thirteen occupants: twelve at their wits end and one, calmly asleep, about to be roused.
The dramatic high-point of the painting for me, if a painting can be said to have one, is the disciple at the prow of the boat, desperately grasping the torn edge of the mainsail. His occupation being to hold it to the mast from which it had been jaggedly torn, separated, along with the rigging which now whipped and lashed wildly above the entire scene in mocking abandon.
To think that an activity that was such a normal part of the everyday life of most of Jesus’ disciples could also just as typically cast them into such an extreme circumstance was a compelling analogy. To these Middle-Eastern fishermen sailing this sea was ordinary life, and the Sea of Galilee was indeed known to go, rather unexpectedly, from glassy serenity to wild bucking tempest. Which is why, had it not been for Jesus’ agenda, they probably would have been safely put in to shore somewhere. How maddening it must have been for them, in light of these facts, to have Jesus calmly snoozing in the bottom of the reeling vessel!
Can you feel their pain? Have you ever been there? I have. Maritime imagery keep speaking, keep calling me out on the water where all my inadequacies become exposed: my lack of tacking maneuvers to sail into head-winds without breaking apart; where anchors seem baseless and rigging ropes whip mockingly useless way over my head and I am left feeling quite like the one disciple trying desperately, by hands and feet, to hold sail and mast together. These also, are the long ordinary times of our lives.
Ordinary time: that second lengthier period between Pentecost and Advent when the glorious truths gleaned and reinforced in the high, holydays of the church’s liturgical calendar, are tried and proven in the normal humdrum, or frantic extremities, of our daily lives. So, it’s normal for children to grow up and move away and for parents to grow old and require care and for our bodies to age and dare us to do today, things so easily accomplished yesterday, without painful consequence. Why then do these ordinary circumstances try us so? Could it be that we were designed for peace? For joy? For rest? Why the unrelenting laws of entropy, the poet’s prediction of mortal man’s expectation of trouble, — ‘as certain as the sparks fly upward’? Murphy’s observation turned law? Sin’s gravity.
But there is a Light shining always, though sometimes from Shrouded Source, that reveals the Truth that rests like ballast at the bottom of the boat of our ordinary times— it’s Emmanuel, for whom we waited; Paschal Lamb, for us crucified; Risen Lord, triumphant over death and Hades; Divine Paraclete, now accessible. Prone in our boat He waits to be invited, waiting to demonstrate that He does care, listening for the fervent or gentle beseeching, for the tug at the hem of His garment or the unabashed seizing and shaking of His shoulder that bears the government of nations and ages. God, in the midst of our ordinary days, invites us to ask, seek and knock — to pray.
Rembrandt chose, wisely perhaps, to freeze frame that moment just before the Lord of Creation commanded the elements of the storm to return to a peaceful calm. Yet how inspiring would it have been to see the whipping rope of that rigging fall gently down to hang limp, reachable and manageable, alongside the now steady mast. How comforting to have viewed the relieved expressions on the faces of the twelve, awestruck, as they observed unruly waves tucking their frothy tails between their aqueous limbs and slinking away to cavernous depths.
Even so, Lord of the winds and waves, speak to the storms of our ordinary lives: lasso the hounds of war breaking forth from the gates of our nations, threatening to consume our sons & daughters; transform deceived minds that foment chaos in hopes of unveiling a new world order or of revealing a religious messiah whose adherents slaughter the innocent and crucify the faithful. Mend our broken moorings and anchor us again in Truth that does not shape-shift with the times. Heal our storm-tossed bodies, stretched and strained beyond capacity’s design. Help us submit again to Creation’s rhythms and know Your Sabbath rest.
May the thieves of the masterpiece restore it to the viewing world and, more important, may You hear our cry in our ordinary days, as we cast the full weight of our expectation on Your revelation: Christ the King! in the Midst of Our Storms.
Lancia Smith, founder, editor of ‘Cultivating’, the warmest place on the Internet”, is very much married, yet reminds me of the widow in Scripture who miraculously was enabled to fill scores of jars from the humble smattering left in her own. Just as miraculously, Lancia has managed to gather scores of excellent writers and artists of faith, from all over, whose jars are clearly filled with good oil. More importantly, she has fostered a community where the Lamplighter Himself is pleased to ignite their lamps to His great glory in the earth. Hop on over and bask in the warmth!
I heard a speech coach once describe the art of story-telling as giving each word its own time in your mouth. As a lover of words I savoured the illustration, especially for words that bear great import — words of truth, of life and of Biblical doctrine. Words like incarnation and atonement, covenant and communion.
Both avid lovers of stories and conversation, my husband and I did not spare our children the joyful exercise of wrapping their young tongues around words, even big words. Thankfully, I also discovered that children like big words, as well as a hands-on approach to learning anything, and I enjoyed finding ways for them to touch, taste and handle the Words of Truth and Life that comprise the Gospel and a Biblical worldview, without always sticking in a DVD, though we did not hesitate to use these whenever helpful ones became available.
Atonement was an especial favorite of mine and I wanted to give it time in my children’s mouths. I delighted in finding ways to illustrate and build to the days of both crucifixion and resurrection each year of their discipleship. More than just touching their palate, through the reading of the Bible stories and other books, I wanted to help them savour its fullness and know lasting satisfaction through employing every sensory aid:
Introducing Children to the Easter Story
My Jamaican heritage was a big boon as I came into marriage and parenting already equipped with a tradition of baking Easter buns for Holy Week, a descendant of the British ‘Hot-Cross Bun”. The entire Lenten season had been culturally ingrained, from my primary school days, when the bell of St. George’s Anglican Church next to our school would toll at noon, bringing all play to a silent halt, as we were required to stop and offer up prayers for a few moments…on pain of punishment! Though I thus learned the folly of trying to instill genuine piety by draconian measures or force of any sort, there was still something special about the ‘big deal’ made about the season: the way the school schedule was altered to accommodate Friday Lenten assemblies in the mini-gothic styled chapel with its resounding pipe organ. The seasonal observance of eternal verities represented in the church’s liturgical cycle were socially and culturally grounding. Silently filing across the alley, grade by grade, into the cool dark-stained pews with our mantillas or jippa-jappa straw hats in place, the grand worship anthems, the Scripture memorization, even the rectors unusual garb and high sounding words, secured us and steadied our world.
Though I was “not in Kansas any more” I wanted to give my best shot at providing our children the same foundation in a world that was already beginning to reel dangerously off-course. I definitely went for ‘winsome’ in establishing Easter/Lenten observances in our home and schooling. So, the year that Ray Boltz’s song “Watch the Lamb” was popular on christian radio, I designed a bulletin board as a green landscape on which we added tufts of white cotton-balls and black mini- pompoms, representing sheep, for all forty days of Lent until Holy Week when the One Perfect Lamb (Jesus) came and died and would be represented by the cross atop the display’s green hill. Another year it was construction paper stepping stones, tracing the path of Christ’s Passion through the streets of my stylized sketch of Jerusalem, inspired by Sandi Patti’s “Via Dolorosa”.
As we waited in a motel for our home to be built one year, with the children all under 10, we memorized great hymns such as “O sacred head now wounded” and “A mighty fortress is our God”, having listened to the story of their writing and Joni Eareckson Tada’s rendition of it on CD. Another favorite activity around music, which I borrowed from Rebecca Hayford Bauer, was to illustrate hymns: One particularly suited to this was,
There is a green hill far away, without the city wall
Where the dear Lord was crucified Who died to save us all.
I would write the hymn out on ruled, over-sized flip charts (available from teacher supply stores) and leave blank spaces for the children to draw in ‘picturesque’ words like ‘green hill’ and ‘city walls’. It was then great fun to sing from our self-illustrated charts for the rest of the season. Not to mention the teachable moments afforded by having to explain things such as, why you may not draw a brown ‘bear’ for the line,
We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains He had to bear,
As the children matured, I searched in catalogues and Christian bookstores for more personally engaging activities and certainly took advantage of prepared activities such as the now common known Resurrection eggs. But beyond such aids I encouraged activities such as painting of any scene from the Passion of Holy Week, making sure to engage in the activity myself, as well as encouraging Dad to do the same. Deep and meaningful conversation came from this as we discussed choice of drawing styles, colours, perspective and the significance of selected scenes, at dinner and at other times of reflection throughout the season.
It’s also a good idea to make sure to offer media in which everyone can have opportunity to shine and for all to be affirmed in their gifting—writing a poem or a song, doing a dance or dressing up in a representative costume, creating a Lego figure — keeping the theme and message of the season a priority.
An important message I have found to give to children, especially in these fractured times of our society, is that of the oneness of the Church around the fact and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection:
Visit other churches during Lent and Holy Week—find the Passion plays, the Maundy Thursday services re-enacting the Last Supper, hosting Jewish Seder meals with the goal of highlighting how Christ’s atoning work was pre-figured therein; or the Tenebris service in which more traditional Methodist churches still cover all decor, lighting, altar and communion table items with black cloths to mark the Light of Christ being gone…until resurrection Sunday when all is flower-bedecked and glorious! Other churches go ‘all out’ re-creating the locale and period of ancient Jerusalem, producing elaborate musical re-enactments with live animals and special visual effects, culminating in a Gospel presentation.
Our family discovered our current place of worship and fellowship through one such community outreach Easter event: Each Holy Week members decorated the Fellowship Hall, transforming it into a space with stations that represented aspects of Christ’s Passion during Holy Week— A circle of seats with basins and towels and members willing to re-enact Jesus’s example of humble service in washing the feet of others; a Garden created by potted palms and other shrubbery, re-presenting Gethsemane, provided a quiet scene to pray through deeper surrender to Christ’s lordship; a table with crowns of thorns, or large nails, table-top crosses… etc. Additionally, each spot was supplied with copies of a relevant prayer guide for the activities at the stations.. By far the most popular station was always the massive cross fashioned from two railroad ties, on which participants could nail notes where they had written down besetting sins or other burdens they wished to ‘leave at the cross’. The periodic sound of the mallet pounding nails into the cross reminded all in that hallowed space of the fact of our forgiven sins and the lavish price Jesus had paid.
Having the chance to serve again one year, I was assigned a place to hand out the prayer activity guides and from that vantage point had opportunity to observe folks nailing their notes of sin to the cross. As I prayerfully watched I noticed the determined efforts of a friend’s young daughter to nail her note to the cross, and thus having gained fresh perspective on the Atonement, I wrote:
Where the Beams Meet
She gently knelt where the beams met,
Pink hair-band restraining black hair.
The yellow ‘Post-It’ she carried
Held words she had written with care:
‘t’s and ‘i’s crossed and dotted,
Confessions of a seven year-old;
“Bring them all to the Saviour;
Lay them down; nail them there”, she’d been told.
She selected a nail and a mallet,
A struggle disfiguring her face:
How to juggle it all in two small hands;
Fill this task, ‘leave your sins at this place’.
She laid down the pen and her Bible,
And on a spot not yet claimed,
She set out to post her own sin-load,
On the rail-ties now crucifix named.
The mallet proved unwieldy;
Its weight too much to bear?
But no, she was determined
To nail her sin-load there.
Again and again she attempted,
The nail slipping this way now that;
Its tip barely entering the rough wood—
Barely making a scratch.
She repeated her effort till finally
The large nail stood upright,
The note pierced, frail and helpless
Lay precarious, but held tight.
She rose with a smile of contentment,
Surveying the work at the cross.
Never that day realizing
The sermon her actions had taught:
I considered how daily I wrestle
To mortify deeds of my soul—
How like an inadequate vessel
What’s poured out ne’er quite fills the hole.
My efforts to earn my salvation
Futile and frail limply lie,
When already, through Jesus, my pardon
Stamped and sealed sits eternal on high.
In the examen of my evening,
Do I proudly my hands dust clean,
Thinking, “There, my atonement’s accomplished”
As I, satisfied, view the scene?
When His last “Tetelestai”
Is what accomplished the task.
All I need do where the beams meet
Is humbly bow low and ask.
– DSA (Lent 2018)
1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness
And all this before the glorious culmination! — the Father’s gracious act of acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice—the Resurrection! This Easter may you lead your family and friends into the glorious art of telling the Story again and again: articulating and animating Truth, Life and Light, in the dark places of this world that God so loves.
*Re-presented for Easter 2020 with audio of the final segment
For someone Tropic born and bred, like myself, the season of Winter can conjure conflicting responses—breath-taking emotions of worshipful silent wonder or lonely feelings of cold, bitter dreariness. Whatever your posture towards Old Man Winter, I have a delectable treat to offer! With more than two months of cold temperatures and curtailed activity yet to weather, I invite you to click over to The Cultivating Project’s Winter issue! —It will, yes, ‘warm the cockles of your heart!’ More than chicken soup, this issue, with its theme of ‘Welcoming Rest’, will do your soul good. I was again blessed to have an essay of mine, ‘The Labour that Welcomes to Rest’, included in its excellent fare. Enjoy! Also, don’t forget to leave a comment and share with anyone you know who longs for beauty and truth! And who doesn’t?
As the Advent season approached this year, I found myself wondering, for the first time, what preparations on the heaven side of things may have looked like that first Advent. My fertile imagination pictured angel-feathers flying everywhere
Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:1-14
God clearly loves feasts and the celebrations surrounding them and has built similar delight into the hearts of us humans. No other creature has behavior that compares to the uniquely human practice of festive celebration. God’s instructions to Moses for His ancient people, Israel, organized their year around major feasts. They also had smaller ones regularly attending other aspects of their daily life, such as the Sabbath.So, it’s not surprising that Jesus often taught of the advancing entry of the Kingdom of God in terms of preparation for a great feast.
As the Advent season approached this year, I found myself wondering, for the first time, what preparations on the heaven side of things may have looked like that first Advent. My fertile imagination pictured angel-feathers flying everywhere, as the heavenly messengers delivered missives, via dreams and annunciations to the relevant characters of the Christmas story, seeing to the fulfillment of prophecies and keeping demon spirits at bay. Was there a send-off feast? I know I run the risk of venturing into anthropomorphism—bringing God down to human form—yet the circumstance invites the imagination to take wing. It tempts us to wonder what the feast in heaven may have looked like, if there was one? I believe Jesus gave us a hint, in the parable, from today’s Scripture.
Here, in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus draws on the practices of these ancient cultures familiar to His hearers, but with a twist that would delight the ‘poor in spirit’ of His audience and anger the proud and self-righteous of the religious elite. It would have been clear to the crowd who the bad actors in the parable represented and who the humble folk, dragged in from the highways and byways, needing to be issued appropriate clothing.
But lest we mistakenly assume that Jesus was playing into ‘classism’— elevating the ‘poor in pocket’ over the wealthy, His parable makes clear that no one in attendance at the feast of His coming Kingdom will do so on his or her own merit. We must all come as the ‘poor in spirit’—the same fury which the King displayed against the initial guests, who esteemed their own business above the King’s, and killed His messengers, is also dished out to the latter guests of humble means, who declined the covering provided in Grace. The response of the King, representative of the Heavenly Father, is completely understandable when you consider that Jesus’ parable is of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, at His Second Advent, and the covering graciously provided, nothing less than the priceless blood of the Son of God Himself!
“Thank You, gracious King and Lord, for Your amazing invitation to feast in Your glorious Kingdom. As we approach the celebration of Your incarnation, may we all make ourselves ready, robed in Your righteousness alone.”
Believers in Jesus Christ have had several centuries to touch, taste and handle the glorious reality and ultimate Truth of Jesus’ first Advent; but not so much His Second. In fact, the proclamation of His imminent return has fallen on hard times as church’s shy away from a focus on what has been known throughout the ages as “The Believers’ Glorious Hope”.
I love the Christmas cards and nativity scenery artistically portraying the shining face of the Christ-Child in the manger, and that light reflecting from those gathered around the Holy family to adore Him. Yet, the historical facts and events, soon to follow that scene, record a brutal, ugly, God-hating world, in the not so distant backdrop. Yet those who gazed and received His Light were forever transformed; going out from that space, proclaimed, preserved and stewarded the Best News the World has ever received and ever will.
Jesus, in Luke 21:5-19, sought to prepare His followers for the unpleasant circumstances that would also attend His second advent—the destruction of Jerusalem, wars at home and abroad, worldwide cataclysmic events, chaos and disruptions in society and the created order, cosmic phenomena and, in it all, persecution of believers in Him. His admonition to them in verse 19 is to ‘possess their souls in patience’, promising that they would be imbued with supernaturally supplied responses and powerful testimonies of Him for their persecutors and captors and that not a hair on their heads would be lost.
In this ‘now and not yet’ prophetic passage we, today, can testify that the disciples, just like the faithful shepherds and the holy family, did ‘possess their souls in patience’, in their time. The light of the Glory of God in the Face of Christ had burst forth from a Middle-Eastern tomb, and they had beheld His Glory, even of the only begotten of the Eternal Father! They waited in prayer and worship till the Spirit fell and filled them, then they faithfully delivered the Gospel to successive generations, sustained even up until our day.
How will we do in our time?
Prayer: “Father, as our quaking world holds the prospect of Christ’s second Advent in derision, help us choose to ‘look up’ in joyful anticipation of His appearing, as Jesus told us to while working the works of Him who sent us while it is still day; knowing that He who promised us supernatural testimony of You, by His Spirit, will also supply the joyful vision to sustain and enable us to ‘possess our souls in patience’ till that Day of days.”
The juxtaposition of Christ’s imperfect earthly family tree with the memory of our Jamaican merry-making tradition, (of preparing for and baking Christmas cakes), provides a segue to rejoice in the redemption of our imperfect lineage, when it is sorted and sifted by the Savior’s hands on our own, in redemptive merry-making.
I was truly surprised by joy when I gave in and read Matthew’s entire list of names in Jesus’ genealogy through his earthly adoptive father, Joseph. Ken Gire’s writing the Scripture at the top of the first reading in his devotional, Moments with The Savior, subtly compelled me. His insightful commentary, describing the earthly genealogy of Jesus as,
“…a lineage of grace, a testimony to the reach of (God’s) love throughout the generations.”
deftly guided me to fuller appreciation of the importance of never discounting even one word of the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. The motley mix that is here laid out for all to see, brought an unexpected sense of relief—a reminder that God means what He says—He is not only willing, but able to redeem all things, causing them to work together for the good of the one who simply admits the desperate need and looks to Him who is Redeemer.
In Gire’s sifting and sorting through the motley inclusions on Jesus’ family tree, I saw, in stark portrayal against the backdrop of humanity walking in darkness, the bright promise of Christ, emerging from a hopeless mess, to manifest as the sweet promise the Christmas season represents in eternal terms—Mankind’s full redemption. The glee that surprised me was reminiscent of that which would peep out at us children from market and grocery bags, when the Trade Winds we called ‘Christmas breeze’ would start to blow across the hills and plains of our island home, and the traditional Jamaican household begins to move towards preparing for it. The items in the bags promised a sweet and wonderful treat that would soon be ours, along with all the fellowshipping, joyful family gathering and community merry-making that it would foster—the making and sharing of the Jamaican Christmas cake tradition!
On my kitchen counter sits two large bags of organic raisins, and an equally large bag of prunes, waiting to recreate that memory, in another land, in hope nevertheless, of sealing a prophetic moment for our family this Thanksgiving, as we try to handle family history redemptively. By the end of October, the traditional Jamaican mother-householder has put her fruit to soak— that is, she has seeded and cut up prunes, washed and dried raisins and currants and put batches of them to soak in jars with a mixture of Jamaican overproof rum and Red Label port wine. This is all a precursor to the later grand baking of the cakes, for family festive dining, as well as for entertaining those expected to visit or just stop by throughout the holiday season. This delectable culinary treasure, no doubt, entered the Jamaican culture via the British of our slave- colonial past, the appearance and ingredients being similar to the British plum pudding.
I am grateful that my mother held to this tradition, though hers was a modest deal: a couple cakes for the immediate family, one for her parents, who lived a few miles away, and one for the visitors likely to sporadically pop in. For my Aunty P, however, who lived on the other side of our extended-family-dwelling, with my paternal grandparents during my growing up years, this was a major happening, almost a community event in scope—complete with laughter, conversation, the sounds of the wooden spoon pounding on the side of the large mixing bowls and the constant whirring of the hand mixer as one of us helped whip the eggs. It was an act of merry-making in itself, this making of cakes that would be given to friends, folks and family and often even shipped to them many miles away, overseas.
The batches of fruit were substantial and the heavy bowls of batter, comprising pounds of butter, sugar, and flour, which would soon receive the dozens of whipped eggs, seemed massive to my young eyes. To an outsider happening upon the scene, after the fruit mixture, mixed spices, vanilla, brown food coloring, and more wine were finally added, it would probably seem just a gargantuan tub of mud-colored sludge, until …Until!!!! poured into a myriad of lined pans and baked at just the right temperature they became that unimaginably fragrant batch of wonderful Jamaican Christmas cakes that filled the house with the heady festive aroma, sizzling tantalizingly, as more wine and rum are drizzled on. Other than preparing to sing in the school choir for the glorious carol service at the Parish church, the Sunday School Christmas Program of our neighborhood church and the family Christmas dinner, these sights, sounds, and smells are still my strongest association with Christmas merry-making and sharing!
As October closed this year, my mind began, perhaps instinctively, to reach out for the Christmas theme that would best connect our family’s holiday gatherings this year with things joyful and eternal, beginning with Thanksgiving— what would be at the heart of our merry-making? And God’s Holy Spirit was faithful to supply it again. In seeking to build our young cross-cultural family, we early realized we had to be intentional in seasons that invoke family of origin memories and traditions, for even sweet memories can come laced with the poison of sad, bad and mad relics—ghosts of human relationships and seasons of generations past or more recent—memories we wish we could erase from the line. But God did not so exemplify. Gire, in describing some of the branches included in Messiah’s family tree, employed words such as, “bent, broken, blighted, twisted and uncultivated”. What a relief that when God came to save us, He knew what He was getting into and did not balk; He is not fazed by broken imperfect storylines. In fact, that’s why He came.
So, like David, we try to run in faith towards those looming specters, instead of cowering each holiday season, awaiting their dread effect, meeting them head-on—seeking to acknowledge and discern God’s redemptive work through them all. Our hands-on His great ones, sifting and sorting family and cultural traditions, tracing our prophetic history, looking to see, like our Jewish friends still do in their Seder observances—including the bitter herbs alongside the sweet Charoset, facing the bitter past without rancour, accepting it as the dark thread that will make the good times shine even more brightly, when God breaks through. In this way we demonstrate our trust in the Sovereign hand of a good God who is at work, not only on the grand scale, but also in the low estate of our family lineage, weaving away at His grand “Poeima”, healing, restoring, bringing all things together under Him who is the Head.
Thus, the simple tradition of putting the Christmas cake fruit to soak before Thanksgiving creates anticipation and makes tangible now the full reason for merry-making then, when we celebrate at Christmas that the Savior came! unveiling God’s love and setting His salvation plan in motion. Yes, merry-making, and all manner of effort to that end, is eminently warranted! Purposefully anticipating ensures that when the last morsel and tinsel of the merry-making season is finally savored and supped away, like the last drops from a sweet cup, then what’s left behind is deep satisfaction and also a well-developed palate and appetite for more. It is like the longing after the final crumb of Christmas cake is eaten, which grows on you and leaves you wanting more but willing to wait another year for the Season with the Reason. I wonder if Aunty P knew the extent to which she was cultivating merry-making at its best—an appreciation for everything in its time, for the glory of Him who weaves all our broken stories into His glorious One.