Unexpected Gifts

December 21, 2019

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent

Having grown up in the Seattle area, I only encountered freezing rain once I went to Ohio for college. Then, one winter evening, I found my car sheathed in a coat of ice. In that moment, as my exasperation gave rise to irrational loathing, I discovered my new least favorite type of weather. Now with several northeastern winters under my belt, I know what to expect. At least that’s what I thought.

The freezing rain that came through last week wasn’t really all that bad. Although the ice on the windshield required some work, my car doors were not sealed shut nor were the sidewalks terribly treacherous. It just meant a few additional minutes of inconvenience at the start of my brief morning commute. In exchange I got beauty.

City snow turns ugly quick. Pristine blankets of gleaming powder soon succumb to urban grime and dirt to become a slushy gray morass before the passing of a single day. This was different though. The same sheets of ice that covered each windshield also embraced every twig on every branch of every tree. Powerlines drooped ominously low, weighted down by their crystalline casings, while metal fences also took on an extra glisten. Looking down the street, rows of sidewalk trees created an effect every bit as gorgeous at a distance as the sparkling evergreen fronds were up close. The silver sky mirrored the icy stillness and when the breeze came, tree branches moved in an eerie and delicate unison: ice yields less than wood.

This particular winter wonderland proved much less corruptible than that of urban snows. Without ever losing its beauty, the ice held its grip as long as possible before letting go of each respective perch, each crash littering the ground with delicately jagged shards of crystal waiting to be crunched underfoot.

A better photographer than I with a better camera than I possess could have done wonders.

In preparing a recent Advent reflection, I had occasion to think about the figure of Zechariah the temple priest, father of John the Baptist. As he was performing his worship in the sanctuary, the angel Gabriel appeared to him announcing that his elderly wife Elizabeth would miraculously bear her first child in the coming months. Zechariah’s response: “How can I know this?”

To me, Zechariah is such a human figure. He wants a sign to confirm what he has been told, not considering that the appearance of this angel itself was an incredible revelation. If he won’t believe this sign, why would he believe any other? If he can’t believe a sign that comes to him while worshipping in a holy place, why would he accept one offered in any other context? Zechariah is unable to recognize the signs already present to him, possibly because he cannot psychologically risk believing in long-hoped for good news. What good news do we refuse to receive? What if unnoticed signs from God constantly surround us while we gaze longingly for more extraordinary revelations that better conform to our dramatic fantasies?

Looking at the most beautiful ice I had ever seen, it was clear to me: Where there is true beauty, God is somehow also present. It is up to us to discover how. To encounter this as the result of a weather nuisance was an unexpected gift indeed.


This week’s ‘ear candy’ is not only about unexpected gifts, but it may also be an unexpected gift in itself. After a little bit of a skit to set the scene, Bing Crosby and David Bowie begin their rendition of Little Drummer Boy. The ‘brain food’ this week is actually ‘heart food’ (as it sometimes is), and is a repeat for long-time readers. In terms of Christmas traditions though, one could do a lot worse than reading The Gift of the Magi.

Ear Candy: “The Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)” by Bing Crosby & David Bowie

Brain Food: “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

Come back next Saturday for a new post!