Blessed is the Lord God, ruler of the universe, for you have kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this holy season…
The above is the principal story told in this relatively minor festival (that has only become secularly “major” in response to the Christmas flood in the end of December).
Think, Beloved, about the stories you’ve been grafted into.
Family stories. Heritage stories of the ancestors.
Contemporary stories around work, around this pandemic and how you have (or have not) dealt with it.
Marriage stories. Divorce stories. Birth stories. Death stories.
In these Middle Days of Advent we ponder the stories that have shaped us, by choice or by chance, and dissect them a bit. For some of these stories, we give thanks. In reflecting on some of these stories we adopt the posture of our holy Jewish siblings and give thanks that God has brought us through and now we’re on the other side, in a new story altogether.
But whether we like them or not, whether we retell them with joy or as a cautionary tale, the stories of our lives have shaped us.
The Hanukkah story is one of my favorites, and a story that Christians would know well (if we did our homework). It’s about how the light in the temple didn’t go out despite the fact that the oil should have run its course. But it didn’t…it stayed lit for eight extra nights, providing for the people the hope and fire needed to go on.
Beloved, if you’re reading this, you’re still here. Your oil may be low, but it has not run out, by God.
That’s part of your story, too…
For your Advent playlist put on the quiet and haunting tune by Novo Amor, “Carry You.“
And, well, let it carry you into the night on this new story…
In Scandinavian homes this morning a little girl with candles in her hair may have brought morning rolls to still-sleeping parents. Or, in a home without any little girls, perhaps a Star Boy with halo and star wand did the delivering.
The Feast Day of Santa Lucia is an odd day on the face of it, especially when you take into account that this Italian martyr’s memory somehow made its way to the Northern Europe and his held sacred there.
Saint Lucy is a young girl who died in the 3rd Century, supposedly by burning or, maybe, having her eyes gouged out in the Diocletian Persecution of Christians (that last torture appears to be a late addition to the lore).
Her visage is now a young maiden adorned with candles, representing the “light in her eyes.”
Saint Lucy’s memory is a reminder for me, and maybe can be for you, not of her gruesome death, but as an invitation to contemplate how we live life.
Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay has this wonderfully brief condemnation on a contemporary view of work-life balance:
My candle burns at both ends: it will not last the night: but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends– it gives a lovely light!
In years past my candle would be burning at both ends in these Advent days, both as a parish pastor and as a parent who loves this season.
But not this year.
This year my pace is slower, both because of this pandemic and because, well, I’m finding it’s a better way to be in the world, Beloved. In many ways I love the hectic festivity of these days…but it can be too much, yes?
Sometimes we all fall martyr to the expectations of Christmas, my friends.
And don’t take me saying that as some sort of chastisement or call for “remembering the true meaning of Christmas.” This season has many meanings, and has throughout human history.
I merely note it as an invitation, at least some years, to light the candle at just one end in these dark December days, and just wait a bit. Watch a bit. Have a sweet roll, in honor of Saint Lucy, and rediscover the slow joy of a softer, but more consistent, light.
For your Advent playlist, cue up “Let it Fall” by Over the Rhine. This powerful ballad is all about taking stock of how we let our candle burn at both ends and, though it is sometimes a “lovely light,” it doesn’t last, Beloved…
Have you been trying too hard Have you been holding too tight Have you been worrying too much lately All night Whatever we’ve lost I think we’re gonna let it go Let it fall Like snow
In December of 1531 Juan Diego, a peasant in Mexico, recounted four miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary, coming to him at random times and in random places. In these visions Mary was speaking to Juan Diego in his native indigenous tongue, Nahuatl. She pleaded with him to build a church there, and repeated this plea with each visit.
Now, visions and “holy” glimpses like these four dot the religious timeline, even perhaps all the way back to Moses and the bush that refused to be consumed in the early chapters of the Book of Exodus.
But what made this particular visit notable, and why I bring it up on this day when many Christians around the world honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, is because I think the best thing about this account isn’t the visitation itself, but the way it happened.
Mary, in these visions, spoke to Juan Diego not in the popular Spanish of the day, the language of the dominating empire, and not in the formal Latin of the church.
Mary didn’t even speak to Juan Diego in her own native tongue, Aramaic!
No. She spoke to him in the language of his heart, his mother tongue, his (oppressed and silenced) native voice: Nahuatl.
Now, whether you believe he actually saw anything at all or not, it’s worth lifting up the power of believing that the Divine speaks in your oppressed voice and not in the voice of your oppressor. Those who venerate Mary on this day do so not chiefly because she came from God to see them, but because she came and stood with them against the oppressive voices of the conquering soldiers and, yes, the conquering church of those days.
She was on the picket-line with them.
She was in the paddy-wagon with them, arrested for being who they are.
She was screaming “I can’t breathe!” with them in the streets of Minneapolis.
Do you see?
In the middle-days of Advent the church honors the coming Christ, yes. But through this unique festival the church offers a preview of how this Divine-one will show up again: not in the clouds with might, but in a gush of blood and water to stand with those who are made up of mostly blood and water against the forces of the world who parade around as Divine themselves.
Faith, I’ve found…my faith…is more earthy than heavenly. I wonder if that’s how the Divine intended it.
Beloved, what is the language of your heart? Can you hear the emissaries of the Divine speaking to you in that voice, using those words? Can you, in your quieted pandemic days, in your Advent waiting, see the vision of a God who shows up with humanity, not just for it?
Add Leigh Nash’s “Maybe this Christmas” to your Advent playlist as she ponders that, perhaps this Christmas (and we need it this year!) we might hear the Divine calling to us in a new way, perhaps even in a new, yet familiar, voice.
The difference between worry and anticipation is, I think, a matter of posture.
They both do the same thing, right? They both wait in expectation for that *thing* to arrive, whatever it may be. One posture, back straight with dread, brow furrowed, is defensive. The other, back straight with alertness, brow flat because the eyes are squinting into the horizon looking for what’s next…a welcoming stance.
Advent is a season where we try out anticipation for a little while as our dominant posture. And, yes, I realize that in this pandemic year all kinds of worry has probably devolved into despair and depression rather than pensive fret. But, if there’s still a bit of worry left in your body, perhaps allow your body to adjust a bit, and see if your heart doesn’t follow.
Squint, Beloved, and see the hope on the horizon.
A vaccine? Yes. Sure. But more than that.
Hope, that this Advent will usher in a change that has eluded you (all of us?) in years prior, because though we talk about wanting to “get back to normal,” we get to decide what parts of our former normalcy we bring with us in a post-pandemic world.
And that’s beautiful.
For Christians the coming of Christ (continually arriving if you trust the incarnation) is an ushering in of a new way of being. Not just a “go and sin no more” (John 8:11), but more-so “the rocky ways will be made accessible” and “the pits of despair will be filled with blessing” (Isaiah 40).
And this Advent we might actually have a little shot of seeing it, by God.
Mary Oliver, my favorite spiritual agnostic who is undoubtedly closer to the Divine than most followers of religion, has some thoughts on the posture of worry in her little poem (appropriately titled) “I Worried.”
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it? Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better? Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless. Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia? Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang.
So sing, Beloved.
Sing, “O come, O come Emmanuel” and then squint to look for it!
And while you’re singing, add Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing” to your Advent playlist. Take a listen, breathe, and anticipate.
On December 10th the church remembers blessed Thomas Merton, and Kentucky monk who, when you read him, sounds much more philosophically Eastern than Western. He noted that his time spent amongst the ancient Buddha statues in Asia was perhaps his most formative religious experience. Indeed, his whole career as a writer, theologian, and scholar of comparative religion was directed at traversing boundaries both within Christianity and outside of the faith.
As a mystical theologian, one of what Fr. Richard Rohr would call the “perennial tradition,” he doesn’t fit nicely in any category. Rather, he seems to expand every category.
If Lent is a time for the pious, Advent is when the mystics have their day, Beloved.
Mystics are those theologians (and, I think I find myself in this category) that are found in every religious tradition but permeate the borders of them all with their notion that the oneness of everything is the deepest truth, and we’ve merely forgetten it.
The mystics in the Celtic tradition have this thought that the “original sin” (if you want to call it that) of humanity was not disobeying God, but rather forgetting their oneness with God and one another. In learning the difference between good and evil they started to draw boundaries in the world, false boundaries to organize people into the “in group” and the “out group.”
Humans were better than all the rest of creation, rather than a part of it.
Men were better than women.
The Divine was outside of the world, rather than in it.
I’m right, you’re wrong.
These boundaries cause harm and separation and conflict…and that’s where we go wrong.
This does not, of course, try to eliminate differences. By no means! Any path that tries to erase differences is a path of ignorance. “We all bleed red blood” is just an excuse some use to ignore the uncomfortable conflicts that happen when we live in close proximity to difference.
Mystics, rather, embrace difference as all part of the same beauty and don’t erase them, but rather erase the status-making game that humans attempt to play when encountering difference.
Merton, and the mystical tradition, meditate on the idea that “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “in and out,” and all these other comfy compartments we use to organize our spiritual and secular lives are unhelpful in the end. In fact, the idea that there is a “spiritual life” and a “secular life” is a false dichotomy, we’d say!
Dualisms, our penchant for making things “this or that” is the primary sin of humanity.
All is one.
Merton has this lovely quote about Advent, saying, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” (_Seasons of Celebration_ by Merton)
For him, “Christ” was not the historical Jesus bound to a faith tradition, but rather the Cosmic Divine Presence the permeates all things (if you look at the Epistle of Ephesians you get glimpses of this expansive idea of the Christ). Advent, then, is that time when we wait for the transformation of everything, all things, into an embodiment of God’s presence. An embodiment that time cannot hold, but yet somehow does in fits and spurts.
We wait for everything to be resolved, in other words.
Sometimes we forget that the ongoing process of turning and changing everything back into our oneness is happening…but it is. Mystics like Merton trust this.
Another poem of Merton’s, a poem about Christmas, starts out like this:
“Into this world, this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited…” (Room in the Inn)
A world full of compartments and containers doesn’t leave any room for Christ, and so Christ comes uninvited to break down the barriers, Beloved, between (as Paul would say) “Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free…” (Galatians 3:28).
Advent is the time of year when we remind ourselves of this, again, and wait, watch, and wonder at how it happens, slowly but surely, in these shadowed days.
For your Advent playlist, throw on one of the most mystical bands out there, Coldplay, and spin “Fix You.” It’s a song about perceived failures and how, from the inside out, you (and me) are being made whole again.
My own has morphed substantially, even in just the last ten years. This is undeniable, and I’ve stopped running from it. In fact, I’m feeling more congruous than ever at the moment when it comes to the mobius strip of my being: my insides matching my outsides.
But I also wonder about the Christian faith in particular. What the hell has happened?
Advent, with this beautiful story of Mary and Joseph being forced to travel to Bethlehem for political reasons found resonance with me when I traveled to Tucson back in 2008. There, as we walked through the desert in a passage often traversed by people immigrating without papers, we found a little pink backpack.
A little girl’s backpack.
We were setting out water jugs there in the desert so that, should a traveler happen upon it, they’d at least have some water in some of the most parched earth of North America.
We found something else out there, too: a water jug slashed all to pieces, the water long gone in the sands. Someone didn’t want a traveler to drink…
Now, I don’t know the particular faith background of whomever did that slashing, but just a few years ago when it was exposed that the government was keeping children in cages, forcibly separating them from their parents, I heard people of faith (people I know and love!) say, “Well, it’s their parent’s fault. They shouldn’t have brought them here…”
Pregnant Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem for political reasons, and (if you trust the Matthew account), had to flee to Egypt due to violence and unrest…
I mean, look, this is Maria and Jose having to bring their children with them, forced by politics and persecution, to towns and over unfamiliar borders, and Christians shrugged when they were put in cages.
Defended the cages, not the people.
Saw the “faithful” response as guilting the people, not condemning the cages.
Saw the “faithful” response as defending anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, and not looking at the people fleeing political strife and persecution.
This is the damn story we’re woven into, and we don’t recognize it because we’ve divorced ourselves from the narrative.
In this season of watching, wondering, and waiting, I’m wondering a lot about my faith, and about the faith.
Beloved, what do you think happened?
I ask this as one would ask a good question around a campfire, late at night when the best conversations happen. Advent is a season for asking nighttime questions. I think it’s a safe season to do so because in this kind of nighttime we are unafraid, what with candles lighting our way and hope in our heart.
I have hope for the faith, Beloved; don’t mistake my questions for abandoning anything.
But I can hold hope and concern at the same time…
Today’s song to add to your Advent playlist is Over the Rhine’s “New Redemption Song.” Give it a listen:
Lord, we need a new redemption song Lord, we’ve tried, it just seems to come out wrong Won’t You help us please, help us just to sing along A new redemption song, a new redemption song
On December 8th many Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Many mistake this feast for the day when Mary supposedly conceived the Christ in an immaculate way, but that’s not it at all.
The Immaculate Conception honored on December 8th by many Christians is not the conception by Mary, but of Mary. The lore goes that this is the day her mother, St. Anne, conceived Mary by immaculate means.
There is much to unpack here (theologically, biologically, sexually), and that unpacking doesn’t fit nicely in a devotional space.
But I wonder, if we can for just a bit, examine the deep root of all this talk about “the immaculate” for a moment.
Why does everything have to be perfect? Why do we desire that?
Why is religion obsessed with the spotless and blameless? I ask this question because I think that, when religion is at its best, it helps people make sense of the muck of life, in the muck of life. There’s nothing spotless about that at all!
I don’t need a spotless Jesus, and I certainly don’t need a spotless Mary.
What I need is a way to sort through the muck of the world. And the path doesn’t have to be perfect (what is perfect?); it doesn’t have to be immaculate in the least.
I just need it to be accessible.
And for someone (like me) who is not immaculate, all this immaculate talk doesn’t do that, Beloved. It doesn’t do that at all…
The bald and beautiful mystical teacher, Father Richard Rohr, says this about so-called perfection, “The great mystics tend to recognize that Whoever God Is, he or she does not need our protection or perfect understanding…All our words, dogmas, and rituals are like children playing in a sandbox before Infinite Mystery and Wonderment.”
This Advent I’m not waiting for the Divine to make things immaculate; I’ll happily settle for better.
But one of the things that I do like about the idea of the Immaculate Conception is this notion that from someone, and in this case a young woman, amazing things can happen, the journey to “better” can be kickstarted.
And that I’ll sign on to every damn time.
As we wait, watch, and wonder in this pandemic Advent, add New Republic’s “Better Days” to your playlist. We don’t need it to be immaculate, Beloved, just better.
This bit of sophistry that parades around as “wisdom” doesn’t know Advent, the time of idleness and waiting. It doesn’t see the beauty in meditation and stillness. This bit of fake bumper-sticker sloganism smacks of consumerism and the idol of a meritocracy, not the holiness of idleness.
There is a bit of Celtic wisdom that we need for today, a wisdom that understands that for life to spring from the earth there must be certain things that happen: the sun must shine on it…which takes time; the water must nourish it…which takes time and a good bit of chance; and the soil, itself, must be healthy and rich…which happens over time, with a good bit of fallowness.
Irish theologian and poet Padraig O’Tuama notes in his book _In the Shelter_ that historically humans have had trouble giving powerful things a name because in naming anything you are asserting a kind of control over it. This is why, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the name for God is not a name at all, but a gap-toothed acronym.
He goes on to point out that Chaos, too, is called many things in the scriptures. Pellmell is a common one, literally translated as “yonder and far” or “hither and thither.”
Jesus, though, the one who is named in the scriptures, indicating that the Divine is assenting to be known in some form or fashion, offers a different sort of approach.
When Jesus met chaos, often symbolized in the scriptures by a storm, he didn’t name the storm, but rather invited it (sometimes rather forcefully!) to be quiet. Or, as O’Tuama translates the Greek, “to be muzzled.”
“The storm,” he goes on to say, “is like an angry dog or a demon, a force that cannot be put down, only contained. ‘Be muzzled’ is what Jesus says. It is muzzled so it cannot bite.” (p, 20)
This, Beloved, is what Advent is for our world, for our insanely active heads, for our continually torn hearts: an invitation (rather forcefully placed on us in the busiest time of the year!) to be muzzled.
The waiting of Advent is a kind of alchemy, a hidden swirling of subtlety that works on us.
Be muzzled to have a chance for the sun to shine on our souls a bit. Be muzzled to absorb the waters of wisdom in these days. Be muzzled to lay fallow for a while and be enriched by the silence.
Idol hands distract, Beloved. Idle hands absorb.
Add to your Advent playlist The Fray’s “Be Still” and follow the lyrics to the very end. They’ll hold you in their hand as you finally let go a bit.
On the night before December 6th, the boys will line up one pair of shoes near the fireplace, hoping St. Nicholas will stop by and put some goodies in it. And every year he does: an orange (a traditional Christmas delicacy), some candies, and chocolate coins.
The coins represent the ancient dowry that St. Nicholas, who would become a 4th Century Bishop in Myra (modern day Turkey), paid on behalf of three young maidens in his town whose father could not afford a dowry. The story goes that St. Nicholas, a rather short fellow with dark skin characteristic of his residence in the world, snuck by the house at night and threw the coins in the window. He repeated this pattern for two more nights, providing the needed monies to preserve the honor of the family.
How this short, brown Bishop was transformed into a larger-than-life white elf with rotund belly and red suit is no small mystery. This is what humans do with things: we mold them into the dominant image, usually for commercial gain.
I am not against the fat elf, mind you. We like Santa Claus in our home, and his enduring presence in our very human celebration stories speaks to his being more than mere legend. We attempt, I think, to make sense of generosity through this mythic story.
But we may try too hard.
Because the root of the story is so much better than the myth.
We don’t need flying reindeer or a chimney-crawling gift-giver to make sense of generosity. We just need a simple soul, in this case a slight guy in ancient Turkey, who saw a family in desperate need and decided that was absolutely unacceptable.
Generosity does not need magic to happen, but when it does happen, Beloved, we certainly find magic.
Every year when I was in the parish I would read a quote by a contemporary of St. Nicholas: St. Ambrose. The quote always came as a bit of a shock, especially because the scenario he paints happens daily here and now.
“The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds–and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor…There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
Ambrose cuts to the quick, but I believe his words are magic. They are the kind of gospel magic that happens when our illusions are peeled away from our eyes and we see things in real time, at their root.
Advent starts with these calls from prophets and these apocalyptic readings in churches (“apocalypse,” by the way, is a fancy word for “unveiling”). And it does so to break the spells that are cast upon us by living in a world that is a bit too comfortable, a bit too commercial, a bit too Santa and not enough Saint.
Where is the need, Beloved?
Perhaps in this pandemic the dowry we can offer those on the verge of desperation is simply to watch a few more commercialized Hallmark movies every night.
I’m dead serious. Stay home. Give a gift to front-line workers.
The veritable coins through the windows of humanity this Advent is to hunker down and in, offering life to those struggling in these months.
And, of course, there are acts of generosity, and lovely presents to give out of love.
But there are presents we can give out of need, too. The magical present of non-presence. Of not showing up. It’s the most saintly thing we can do right now.
As you practice showing-up for the needy by staying in, know that you’re giving the best gift of all right now: love. Add St. George of the Harrison’s beautiful song “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” to your Advent playlist.
And then do your best to usher in peace by, right now, doing nothing, by God.
Put a candle in the window ‘Cause I feel I’ve got to move I’m gone, gone…but I’ll be comin’ home soon As long as I can see the light.
Today’s Advent playlist suggestion is one of my favorites from one of my favorite bands. Creedence Clearwater Revivals’ “Long As I Can See the Light” is an Advent tune if there ever was one.
If I were still a parish pastor, I’d probably cue this up to be sung, this Advent especially. The lyrics are evocative of that story of the wise maidens who keep their “lamps trimmed and burning” as the spiritual goes. Those maidens aren’t just waiting in a general way; they’re waiting with expectation.
Waiting with expectation means, I think, knowing that something is going to happen…even if you don’t know what it is. You’re prepped to receive whatever comes your way. It harkens back to yesterday’s post about a kind of hope that doesn’t cling to a specific outcome, and yet knows that good can be made of whatever outcome produces itself.
As I walk through my neighborhood on these darkening days I’m seeing so many houses with candles in every window. It’s an ancient practice, you know. It comes from those days when travelers would journey deep into the night, and a light in the window meant the house was safe to stop in for food or a bed.
The candle in the window was a signal of safe harbor, even if you didn’t know who might need it, when they might show up, or what was on the other side of the door.
I guess what I mean is that the candle in the window is a symbol of expectant waiting.
For Christians it’s a symbol of waiting for Christ to show up (though, if you trust the idea of the incarnation then Christ shows up in many and various ways again and again…we just miss it more often than not).
But even for those who don’t find themselves in a faith community, this kind of symbol of expectant waiting has some meaning, I think. After all, we’ve all been in the position of searching in the dark night of the soul, longing for some sort of harbor. The trick in such a circumstance is to keep going, of course. The metaphor of a night traveler is appropriate. If they stop, no candle will appear, so stepping one foot in front of the other until it does appear is necessary.
It’s necessary to keep going.
Advent is the time of the year where we practice this plodding gait. Where we practice both putting candles in our windows and keeping a look out for them, learning to see where the safe harbors are in the world, preparing our own beings to become safe harbors for those who need one.
Like maidens who know the bridal party can arrive at any moment, we become wise when we do this.
T. J. O’Gorman’s poem is appropriate for this day, and this song:
Face to face with our limits, Blinking before the frightful Stare of our frailty, Promise rises Like a posse of clever maids Who do not fear the dark Because their readiness Lights the search. Their oil Becomes the measure of their love, Their ability to wait– An indication of their Capacity to trust and take a chance. Without the caution or predictability Of knowing day or hour, They fall back on that only Of which they can be sure: Love precedes them, Before it No door will ever close.