Candlemas, Kinship and Firstborn Sons

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I’m not entirely sure when I met my sister-in-law(-in-law).* But I think it was at the Evensong nights that sprung up about ten years ago. I had no idea of her future importance in my life, of course. She was just a college friend to both my new husband and his little brother.

And now she is someone I will see, in all likelihood, every Christmas for the rest of my life. She is aunt to all my children, and godmother to one. And last month, she gave me my very first nephew.

My tired winter brain travels back over the decade, over three of my own newborns and countless nights of broken sleep, to those long summer evenings with friends, amateurish meals, and the Book of Common Prayer.

It’s Candlemas today, many states away, where I’m returned to Catholicism but still moored by the orderly liturgy I learned that summer. Candlemas is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, commemorating when Christ was a new baby making his public debut. It was at the Presentation that Jesus met Simeon, whose song I first learned in our Anglican Evensong, and which later we often chanted to our sleepless firstborn infant:

Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace

According to thy word

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people

To be the light to lighten the Gentiles

And to be the glory of thy people Israel.

I still chant Simeon’s canticle in night prayer with the same translation, ignoring the slightly different wording favored in my liturgy of the hours. I love Simeon’s song, which is called, if you want to be fancy, the “Nunc Dimittis” — the assurance that we can go to sleep knowing we’ve seen all we need to of the Lord’s glory and mercy, his salvation.

Except for those of us who married Bowers brothers, we’ve all scattered. Most of us are Catholic now, one an Anglican Ordinariate priest. The graceful old home where we sometimes gathered was demolished to make space for a grand but somehow too perfect-looking cathedral.

It’s Candlemas, and I think back to those evenings in communal prayer, lit in my memory by tea candles — brought by whom? Now I can’t remember.

We were young and well-rested then, and now I am calmer and, I hope, a little wiser, and also very tired, especially when I consider the brutal sharpness and bleary monotony of my first days with my first baby, and what my nephew’s mother faces now.

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beatific & bewildered

We want to gloss over new motherhood as pastel and blissful, a promise fulfilled. Bring on the march of well-wishers, the balloons and precious onesies! And it is a promise, but also a stripping bare, for some, at least. Certainly a reckoning, Mary’s heart uplifted and pierced by a sword, both. The world seems to say: Well done, you’ve grown a human and gotten him into the world and at least one of those is the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but don’t stop now! Please begin caring for this vulnerable and soupy new person. We don’t much care how battered and shell shocked and exhausted you are.

It’s as if you’ve passed the finish line of the marathon, shaking and beaming (or barfing), and someone hands you something really fragile and demanding along with your cup of Gatorade.

I search myself for wisdom and don’t find much, but the words I sing to my three children at bed each night, the chant I learned side-by-side with that girl who’d be my sister-in-law(-in-law), come echoing back:

O gracious light

Pure brightness of the everliving Father in Heaven

O Jesus Christ

Holy and blessed

Now as we come to the setting of the sun

And our eyes behold the vesper light

We sing thy praises, o God

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thou art worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices

O Son of God, O Giver of Light

And to be glorified through all the world.

Since making their acquaintance years ago, I’ve loved these nighttime prayers. They fit my temperament, I suspect: melancholy and wistful, a little scared and a little weary. Looking back at the beauty of the day and its struggles, then trying to turn my sight back to God.

From the safety of my experience, the rawness of new motherhood now calloused and broken in for me, I raise my song to praise with happy voice this everyday miracle: Where once we were strangers, now our children share grandparents.

Let us never forget, however. New babies, especially that first one, are good and hard and beautiful. Likewise, our lives, too, seen by Christ’s gracious light, are good and hard and beautiful. We reach close of day a little raggedy, but confident God has shown us what we most needed to see — his goodness, his plan. In the vesper light, in the candlelight, I just about can see it.

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*(Why is there no elegantly simple term in English that clarifies that you mean your husband’s sister-in-law? Your brother-in-law’s wife?)

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