at the start of Advent…

This is something I shared at my small group worship time last evening and thought I’d share it here also:

A couple of readings to start this time of reflection:

From Luke 1, the canticle of Zechariah after John was born to his elder wife Elizabeth and the Holy Spirit returned his voice after a gestation of silence:

Blessed are you, God of Israel for you have visited and redeemed your people, and have raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of your servant. As you spoke through the mouths of your holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who oppress us; to perform the mercy promised to our ancestors, and to remember your holy covenant, the oath you swore to Abraham and Sarah, to grant us deliverance from evil, that we might serve you without fear, in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Holy One to prepare God’s ways, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

And a quote from writer and artist Jan Richardson:

I believe that Christ came not to dispel the darkness but to teach us to dwell with integrity, compassion, and love in the midst of ambiguity. The one who grew in the fertile darkness of Mary’s womb knew that darkness is not evil of itself. Rather, it can become the tending place in which our longings for healing, justice, and peace grow and come to birth…I believe that this is the gift that God holds out to us in this season: to carry the light, yes, but also to see in the dark and to find the shape of things in the shadows. With a perception that goes beyond visual sight, we are called to know and to name the gifts of the night and to share the visions that emerge from the darkness.”

–Jan L. Richardson in “Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas”

I’m not sure exactly what visions I have to share coming out of the darkness that I have known at different points in my life. But I will say that Advent is both a deeply hard season and one of my favorite liturgical times of the year. I need Advent in order to make sense of the world (or, more truthfully perhaps, in order to learn how to hold the sometimes nonsensical ambiguity that is our world). In the midst of a commercial season bent on facades of happiness and cheer, I long for Advent. It’s very easy to skip this season all together. By Thanksgiving the stores are playing Christmas music 24/7 (and if I’m honest, it’s happening in my car too…) and by the start of Advent, we are quick to jump to the story of Jesus’ arrival in the manger in our worship settings. We want to get to the good stuff—we want to feel that cheer that Christmas promises, but I believe we need, first, Advent. We need this season of turning inward, this season of compassion, love, healing, justice, peace, ambiguity, pain, preparation, quiet, hope, darkness and light.

Last Sunday was the first in the season of Advent and churches traditionally light the first candle that represents hope. I found church particularly hard last week because my grief welled up. One doesn’t always know when or where grief will make its presence known. It’s not predictable. It’s sometimes ugly. It’s always real. I sat in my pew and listened to words about Mary, about mothering, about pregnancy and birth and it was all I could do not to ugly cry right then and there. Advent has this power to remind us that we don’t hold it all together (we can’t and we probably shouldn’t), that there’s more going on beneath the surface, and that this is a season to face all that, to feel all that, within ourselves, within our world. Despite the cheer that our culture soaks Christmas in (even our churches sometimes), this is a hard season for so many people, for so many reasons.

Advent invites solidarity and it is soaked in hope—hope that doesn’t shy away from the struggle, but is born out of the struggle. Hope sees all that is beautiful and broken in this present world, in our lives, and provides a vision for something more, some horizon that is out there, sometimes within reach, where we turn and get a glimpse of that new world coming, where our grief will be transformed, where injustice will be righted, where our stories as whole people will be cherished. Hope that God is still in the business of transforming us, bringing our world around right. This is not an easy or sentimental hope. It’s steeped in the dust and dirt, the callouses and tears of our lives. It’s the promise of Advent – that God comes to us, abides with us not once we can get it all together, but right here, right now. And she comes in vulnerability to meet our vulnerability. He comes to struggle out hope alongside.

The orientation that I want to foster this Advent (and beyond) is a “perception that goes beyond visible sight”, the ability to see the coming together of heaven and earth in the midst of the ordinary of daily life, to catch a glimpse of what God is inviting me to do, to be in order to join in the work and attitude of hope for the world. I want eyes to see the holy in and all around me, woven in surprising ways amidst the broken, the pain, the joy, the promise. It’s in the holding of all the complexity (of darkness and light, of joy and grief…) that I find hope if I dare to look.

What are you hoping for this Advent season? What horizon are you perceiving? How do you dwell in the ambiguity? Where do you see the coming together of heaven and earth?

For our time of reflection this evening, I thought I would play a song/video. The song is by the late Garrison Doles and the images in the video come from his partner Jan Richardson. Take a look and feel free to share your comments/reflections below.

The chorus of this song reads, “Come and walk upon the world. We have longed for your presence here. Live in our lives. This is the night of heaven and earth.”

(an aside: this song also will always be Ira’s song in my mind—this song accompanied me in the (many) weeks of waiting for his birth which finally happened on Christmas morning, nearly 6 years ago! I offered a reflection on that waiting and on this song also here:

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