Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I'm trying to give some thought to the Advent Sunday lectionary texts, one at a time. If you don't know what those are: many Christian churches establish readings for each Sunday (each day, actually) over the course of a three-year cycle. Preachers who rely on that cycle of texts will be able thereby to guide their congregations through a large and representative chunk of the Bible via their Sunday sermons over the course of three years. The daily readings include a passage from the Hebrew Bible, from a Psalm, from a gospel passage, and from another Greek Bible text. The three year cycle enables a year to be devoted to each of the three synoptic (look it up!) gospels; readings from the Gospel of John appear around Easter. Since the liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, a new lectionary year has also just begun -- with Matthew as the gospel focus.
I'm also trying to be attentive to other Advent contemplations, and so on the days when I'm not ruminating about Scripture, I plan to highlight some other bloggers or websites. Today, I'm delighted to refer you to my friend Michelle's first Advent post over at Quantum Theology.
Finally, I'm writing from my own perspective. We are in Year Three of life without our son. I remember little of the last two Advent seasons, although I seem to have written quite a bit. If you have found your way here, you are probably experiencing some holiday difficulties of your own. What I write may seem too upbeat and hopeful if you are in a time of despair and hopelessness; it may be too raw and painful if you have moved on. I know, because you honor me with comments and emails, that those reading this are in every kind of place with every imaginable and complex kind of loss. I wish I could do justice to each and every person and situation, but the best I have to offer is the authenticity of my own experience, and my Advent hope that it will encourage you to delve into your own.
For now, you might wander over to Michelle's. She's writing about Alfred Delp, S.J. this year ~ someone whose courage and faith, honed as a prisoner of the Nazis, we can trust in our own times of challenge and anguish.
Monday, November 29, 2010
A couple of years ago, when our son was waiting to hear from college admission committees, he and I were in what might understatedly have been referred to as an attentive posture of being. We could have been more accurately described as about to explode from the volatile combination of apprehension and hopefulness. We were on constant red-alert for e-mail and snail mail, attentive to the slightest alteration in the letter carrier's schedule. And when the news finally arrived, most of it good, we had waited so long and so hard that it was actually something of a let-down.
You can't live in a state of such tense alertness for long, at least not at my age, without doing some serious damage to your heart. Of course, there are far worse situations: a hospital room where a child lies in critical condition, the front lines of a war, the smell of smoke and the crackle of flames in the middle of the night. At such times, our sensory perception goes into high gear and the little things that we would not otherwise notice become etched into our very long-term memory.
Fortunately, most of us are not required to live in such tension for long periods of time. In fact, most of the time, we are barely aware of our surroundings. How many times have you driven dozens of miles down the interstate without really knowing it? Could you tell me what you had for lunch yesterday? You know your paid your bills last month, but do you have any clear recollection of having done so? No, most of the time we are on automatic pilot, just doing what we need to do more or less when we need to do it.
It has been posited that it is precisely that automatic-pilot approach to life that will leave some of us in the breach. Today's Gospel passage has become the foundation for the Left Behind novels. In that series of a dozen or more bestsellers, the end of the world as we know it begins with the disappearance of the "saved," in the course of an ordinary day and right before the eyes of friends and family. The premise, also based on the Book of Revelation, is that those who have been "saved" in this life will, on the Day of Rapture, be called to God's side in the blink of an eye, while the rest of the sorry human population will be left to its dread fate in the ensuing conflict between the battling forces of the Christ and the the anti-Christ.
They aren't pretty books. The explicitly depicted violence is revolting, but no more so than the articulated vision of a god of violence and judgment who is out to render the universe into two opposing camps. Is that really what God means to do? Does God want us to be attentive only to the consequences of our actions in the context of an ultimate judgment between good and evil? The parallel to the Biblical flood story might seem to indicate that such is the case. Certainly the fear of a final catastrophic judgment seems endemic to human nature, as evidenced by those flood stories told by virtually every ancient culture.
However, I don't think that today's passage is placed here at the beginning of Advent, completely out of context, to remind us of the potential for disaster, or even to be attentive to the possibility of an event of gargantuan proportions, like a hurricane or tidal wave. I think it's here to remind us to be attentive to the possibility that a colossal shift in the cosmos might be hidden in the smallest and most ordinary of events: the birth of a child in a cave on the outskirts of a small town.
"Keep awake," Jesus says, years later, to his followers. "Keep awake, " we are reminded, a month before Christmas. Keep awake for what?
I will be the first to admit that I do not "keep awake" for the Gospel message, for the good news that the world, and the part each of us plays in it, has been transformed. Mostly, I do my regular stuff. I check my e-mail and I prepare my lessons. I wash the kitchen floor and clean out the litter box. I teach my classes and go to meetings, at the school where I teach and at the church where I worship. I nag my children about their responsibilities. I do the laundry and ignore the vacuuming. Occasionally I remember to give thanks, for a crisp and blue-skied morning, for a child who has navigated a rocky passage, for a student who makes a leap of achievement. Sometimes I remember to pray ahead of time; for instance, before I open my opinionated mouth. (Not usually.) But mostly I am not awake or aware to the power or even the love of Christ in my life.
Sometimes. The truth about my walking has far less to do with my middle-aged quest for fitness than with my need for such awareness, which I tend to experience, if at all, when I am moving on my feet through God's created world. I walk largely as an exercise in attentiveness. There have been many occasions when I have paused as I have circled the small lake to which I often walk, noting a migrating bird or a startling shimmer of light across water, and been aware that the passing cars are missing something important. One afternoon I crouched behind the full-grown reeds of late summer, observing three green heron siblings learning to fly. Baby down feathers still stuck out here and there from their increasingly adult plumage, and as they hopped awkwardly from branch to branch, I worried like a mother heron that they were all about to fall in. Cars sped behind me and bicylists zipped down the nearby path. I was the only human witness to that first flying lesson.
Even that level of attentiveness is hard to maintain. Most of the time, we fancy ourselves too busy for the daily mindfulness to which both Buddhism and Christrianity call us. John Kabat Zinn entitles one of his books Wherever You Go, There You Are -- a point worth noting. Most of us are usually too busy with where we think we are going to attend to where we actually are.
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister says that "The role of religion is to bring us to an awareness of life. The role of religion is to transform the world, to come to see the world as God sees the world and to bring it as close to the vision of God as we possibly can. Why? Scripture is very clear. What God changes, God changes through us."
Part of the good news is that we are now reminded, as the earth swings on its annual orbit, to "Keep awake." We have another opportunity, every year in the longest and darkest days of winter, to wake up and pay attention.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Musing about this topic, I googled the word armor. The wikipedia definition begins as follows: "protective covering used to prevent damage from being inflicted." I suppose that that could be refined to "prevent more damage."
When Paul talks about armor, he always sounds so, well . . . energetic. Like someone preparing for a great battle, convinced of the superiority and ultimate triumph of the One he follows.
I imagine putting on armour a bit differently. I imagine an exhausted and beaten warrior, looking at the heavy and battered chunks of metal strewn across her table and bed, and hoisting the first piece with a sigh.
Perhaps it's time, during this season of preparation, to imagine the scene a bit differently. Perhaps it's time to put aside the mental images of metal, mail, and bronze, and imagine armor of light.
Light ~ Does it weigh anything? Is it impervious to damage? I know nothing about the physics or properties of light, but I have a friend or two who perhaps will weigh in.
I honestly have no idea how to visualize armor of light. Perhaps because it is delivered in the form of vulnerability and poverty, arriving in a cramped cave far from home. Perhaps because I have not yet grasped how that kind of armor is the only real defense against the darkness. Perhaps because I have never really absorbed an understanding of the full weight and density of the light of Advent.
Friday, November 26, 2010
It can be challenging at best, impossible at worst, to return to one's house of worship when times are dark.
The Psalmist is referring to Jerusalem, God's holy city, God's mountaintop city crowned by God's temple. We Christians tend to read ~ and sing ~ the same line in reference to our churches. Those for whom church is not a part of their lives ~ perhaps the same music and words apply to the Redwood Forest, or the Matterhorn? I can think of a place in Glacier National Park in which I have backpacked and camped that seems to me to be the house of the Lord:
In any case, for some of us these are precisely where we want to go in times of darkness, and for others, the memories associated with previous experience, or the cheerful presence glowing throughout, moves them out of reach, at least for a season of life.
Some of us, sometimes, need to find fresh alternatives.
From my present vantage point, I would say that we should not give up. I found, in the darkest times two Advent seasons ago, that there were churches other than my own, and places in this wide and beautiful world other than those well known to me, to which I could repair for something resembling sustenance. Churches more hushed than mine, congregations where no one knew me. Beaches and hilltops which I had never before approached.
And now I find that I can return to my own church, and to places in nature that have been important to our family. I find that, not having rushed or pushed myself, I am glad to do so.
How are you doing, with the places in which God was once most present to you?
Image: Josh Gerritsen photo here.
~ Isaiah 2:5
If Advent is a season of darkness ~ of turmoil, of confusion, of sadness ~ it's difficult to hear it begin with these words. When burrowing under the covers and hiding out until the spring equinox seems like a plan, everything about this exhortation seems counterintuitive:
Community (House) ~ We are called to be together, not to isolate ourselves.
History and Inheritance (Jacob) ~ We are called to remember who we are, not to wish that we weren't.
Invitation (Come) ~ We are sought after, despite our feelings to the contrary.
Imperative (Let us) ~ We are called together to gather, do, respond, look forward, and not to curl up into a ball in the darkness.
Move (Walk) ~ We are called to put on foot in front of the other, not to remain rooted in sadness or fear.
Life (The light of the Lord) ~ We are invited into God's re-creating presence, into what God has been doing since the first day.
Is one part more difficult than the others? Does it all seem quite impossible? Some years, yes.
Perhaps that's why the first day of Advent begins with these words, so that we can begin to practice the impossible in preparation for the seeming impossibility of what we are waiting for.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Moses’ vision of God began with light (Exod. 19.18); afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud (Exod. 20.21). But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness (Exod. 24.15-18).
Commentary on the Song of Songs,
quoted in An Anthology of Christian Mysticism
edited by Harvey D. Egan
(HT to Carl McColman over at Anamchara: The Website of Unknowing)
Last week it fell to me to draft a short article for the local community newspaper about our church's planned Blue Christmas service. (We are actually calling it Christmas in a Minor Key after the liturgy we are using, with permission of its creator, found here.) As my initial draft made the rounds of various others with an interest in the service and its publicity, one person questioned one of my phrases, to the effect of "honoring both the darkness and the light," as theologically suspect.
I wasn't going to get into a lengthy discussion about the theology of darkness over a two-paragraph publicity story. And besides, she had a point: many readers of the story might give it a glance and take it the wrong way. And she has back-up. I John 1:5-6 says that "God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true . . .".
That one does give me pause.
On the other hand, most of us are aware of the phrase "the dark night of the soul," although we have little understanding of its meaning. It's become a commonplace in our culture to use that phrase when we are talking about depression, or about a sense of confusion and bewilderment and lost-ness. In the parlance of the mystics, however, it has a very specific meaning. I don't make any pretense of grasping it, but St. John of the Cross, the 16th century mystic who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul, understood it to mean a time during which one feels the desolation of abandonment by God as God strips away all that one has relied upon ~ until only God is left.
Perhaps someday I will spend some time on how God is implicated in the images of darkness in Scripture and tradition. I am, not surprisingly, very much interested in that topic after my own experiences since my son's death, which was one of God's seemingly complete disappearance. I think mine has been a not-unusual experience of grief after the loss of a child to suicide, which leaves a particularly intense form of devastation in its wake, but I also know, because they have told me so, that others often experience a deep sense of God's love and re-assurance after the death of a loved one. In other words, my experience is neither unique nor universal. However, it is something from which people tend to shy away.
And yet, while I was on retreat last month, and pulling books left and right out of the library, I encountered two different references to that darkness in which God is so close that you do not see God there.
God as your skin, perhaps? God completely, but invisibly, enveloping you?
God there, persistently and quietly, when your attention is elsewhere? Or when you are incapable of paying attention to anything?
God must surely be in the darkness with us. How could there be anyplace more essential for God to be?
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Paying attention is almost impossible when loss is fresh, when grief has splintered the pieces of your life into a puzzle no longer recognizable.
And yet, it is the task of Advent. Pay attention, even if you have no idea how. Pay attention, even if you don't want to. Pay attention, even if you can't.
And a year ago I quoted Alfred Delp, S.J., writing from Tegel Prison in Berlin in 1944:
Being shaken awake is entirely appropriate to thoughts and experiences of Advent. . . . It is precisely in the severity of this awakening , in the helplessness of coming to consciousness, in the wretchedness of experiencing our limitations that the golden threads running between heaven and earth during this season reach us; the threads that give the world a hint of the abundance to which it is called, the abundance of which it is capable.
How striking it is to me that those posts should have been about attentiveness and awakening, writing just before Advent seasons which seemed impossible to bear. I think it was last year that I wandered into a department store at just about this time, took one look at the lights and displays and profusion of . . . of profusion, and fled, not to enter a retail establishment again until after the New Year.
But that's not the abundance to which we are called to awaken, despite the best efforts of the progeny of Mad Men.
Perhaps this will be the year in which I will finally begin to get glimpse of those golden threads running between heaven and earth. Perhaps they are much more apparent when we are anchored in limitation than when we are capable of embracing profusion.
The past two years, I have felt little beyond numbness through the Advent season. This year, I think I might have a ringside seat for seeing things I've never noticed before.